Here’s a seven-minute segment from Bill Maher’s latest show in which he compares Communist revolutions (especially the Cultural Revolution) with the Woke Revolution. The parallels are numerous, and Maher makes one comment that made me laugh out loud, something I do rarely (guess which comment).
The YouTube notes say this, which is a quote from Maher
The problem with communism – and with some very recent ideologies here at home – is that they think you can change reality by screaming at it.
He ends by going after the wokesters who want to revise biology so it conforms to “progressive” ideology.
Although the word “woke” and its derivatives seem to trigger some readers, I still can’t find a good substitute. I just read Andrew Doyle’s new book, The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World, and I see that that Doyle doesn’t much like “woke” either. (His book is a good complement to John McWhorter’s book Woke Racism.) At any rate, I tried to find a replacement in Doyle’s critique, but the best replacement I could come up with for the pejorative “woke” is “illiberal Left”, which is a mouthful. And it becomes “anti-illiberal Left” (a bigger mouthful) when characterizing people like Doyle or McWhorter. So I’ll perhaps use both terms. (Remember that Doyle is the creator of Titania McGrath, who hasn’t been tweeting much lately.)
But I digress. Pamela Paul, who used to be the Sunday Book Review editor for the New York Times, now writes a weekly column for the paper. Not only is she a good and clever writer, but she appears to be anti-woke anti-illiberal Left. That makes at least two good NYT columnists of that ideological stripe: Paul and McWhorter.
Her piece this week (click below to read, and I see it’s been archived here) is about the woke Language Police at Stanford, and about the chilling of speech in general on American campuses. The amusing bit is that her piece uses over a quarter of the words that the Stanford University IT group recommended be changed, and she’s put them in bold. Her intro (I added the link to the list, now archived):
The following is a celebration of the cancellation of the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative, an attempt by a committee of IT leaders at Stanford University to ban 161 common words and phrases. Of those 161 phrases, I have taken pains to use 45 of them here. Read at your own risk.
Click to read, but you may incur much harm. Her message, though, has hopeful bits.
Note that even “Hip Hip Hooray!” in the title was deemed harmful by the guide:
Paul uses 20 “harmful” words in the first three paragraphs alone:
Is the media addicted to bad news? It’s not a dumb question, nor are you crazy to ask. After all, we follow tragedy like hounds on the chase, whether it’s stories about teenagers who commit suicide, victims of domestic violence or survivors of accidents in which someone winds up quadriplegic, crippled for life or confined to a wheelchair.We report on the hurdles former convicts face after incarceration, hostile attitudes toward immigrants and the plight of prostitutes and the homeless. Given the perilous state of the planet, you might consider this barrage of ill tidings to be tone-deaf.
Well, I’m happy to report good news for a change. You might call it a corrective, or a sanity check, but whatever you call it — and what you can call things here is key — there have been several positive developments on American campuses. The chilling effects of censorship and shaming that have trapped students between the competing diktats of “silence is violence” and “speech is violence” — the Scylla and Charybdis of campus speech — may finally be showing some cracks.
Matters looked especially grim in December, when the internet discovered the 13-page dystopicallly titled “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative. A kind of white paper on contemporary illiberalism, it listed 161 verboten expressions, divided into categories of transgression, including “person-first,” “institutionalized racism” and the blissfully unironic “imprecise language.” The document offered preferred substitutions, many of which required feats of linguistic limbo to avoid simple terms like “insane,” “mentally ill” and — not to beat a dead horse,but I’ll add one more — “rule of thumb.” Naturally, it tore its way across the internet to widespread mockery despite a “content warning” in bold type: “This website contains language that is offensive or harmful. Please engage with this website at your own pace.”
By using those words, Paul of course emphasizes the inanity of claiming that they’re “harmful.” She does add that the Stanford list has been taken down (the link above is to a WSJ copy), and considers this good news—part of a salubrious trend that she sees in American education. But she can’t resist using perhaps the dumbest “harmful word” on the list (save “American”):
Could this be a seminal moment for academic freedom? Consider other bright spots: Harvard recently went ahead with its fellowship offer to Kenneth Roth, the former head of Human Rights Watch, which was earlier rejected, allegedly owing to his critical views on Israel. M.I.T.’s faculty voted to embrace a “Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom.” At Yale Law School, which has been roiled by repeated attempts to suppress speech, a conservative lawyer was allowed to appear on a panel with a former president of the A.C.L.U. after protests disrupted her visit the year before. And Hamline University, which had refused to renew an art history professor’s contract because she showed an artwork that some Muslim students may have found offensive, walked back its characterization of her as “Islamophobic.”
Finally, when an office within the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California banned the terms “fieldwork” and “in the field” to describe research projects because their “anti-Black” associations might offend some descendants of American slavery, U.S.C.’s interim provost issued a statement that “The university does not maintain a list of banned or discouraged words.”
And here is a form of linguistic conflict that I hadn’t noticed:
The chilling effects of censorship and shaming that have trapped students between the competing diktats of “silence is violence” and “speech is violence” — the Scylla and Charybdis of campus speech — may finally be showing some cracks.
From the guide (not the column):
She continues, causing a lot more harm but making a point at the same time:
But we do know two things: First, college students are suffering from anxiety and other mental health issues more than ever before, and second, fewer feel comfortable expressing disagreement lest their peers go on the warpath. It would be a ballsy move to risk being denounced, expelled from their tribe, become a black sheep. No one can blame any teenager who has been under a social media pile-on for feeling like a basket case. Why take the chance.
Yet when in life is it more appropriate for people to take risks than in college — to test out ideas and encounter other points of view? College students should be encouraged to use their voices and colleges to let them be heard. It’s nearly impossible to do this while mastering speech codes, especially when the master lists employ a kind of tribal knowledge known only to their guru creators. A normal person of any age may have trouble submitting, let alone remembering that “African American” is not just discouraged but verboten, that he or she can’t refer to a professor’s “walk-in” hours or call for a brown bag lunch, powwow or stand-up meeting with their peers.
Now that you know woke language guidelines, you’ll be able to figure out why the Puritans see all the words in bold as harmful. (Having trouble with “African American? Go here.)
Paul then gives the worrying statistics about the drop over time in the proportion of students who think that free speech rights are secure and notes the frightening 2/3 of students who think that college climates prevent people from expressing views that could be seen as offensive.
In the last two paragraphs she drops the use of “harmful words” and makes her serious point:
It is reasonable to wonder whether any conceivable harm to a few on hearing the occasional upsetting term outweighs the harm to everyone in suppressing speech. Or whether overcoming the relatively minor discomforts of an unintentional, insensitive or inept comment might help students develop the resilience necessary to surmount life’s considerably greater challenges — challenges that will not likely be mediated by college administrators after they graduate.
Rather than muzzle students, we should allow them to hear and be heard. Opportunities to engage and respond. It’s worth remembering how children once responded to schoolyard epithets: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.” Narrow restrictions on putatively harmful speech leave young people distracted from and ill-prepared for the actual violence they’ll encounter in the real world.
And this type of bowdlerization is performative. In the end, it accomplishes nothing. The people who promulgate these changes are the Entitled Woke, and the tut-tutting directed at people who will continue to use the old argot. The changes are made for one reason: to flaunt one’s virtue.
The latest issue of Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, has a long (4-page) feature about the “decolonization” of mathematics. As we’ve learned to expect from this kind of article, it points out gender and ethnic inequities among mathematicians, ascribes them to structural racism existing today, and seen as ubiquitous in math, and and then proposes untested ways to achieve equity in math (proportional representation of groups) by infusing the teaching of math with aspects of local culture.
The problem with this paper, like similar “decolonization” screeds, is that while it certainly means well (I agree that everyone should have the chance to learn math), and is sensitive to differences among cultures, it gives no evidence that “decolonizing” mathematics (that is, removing its “whiteness” and “Westernness”, and using as math subjects features of the local culture) actually works. It’s a gift package of suggestions and assertions wrapped around, well, nothing. This doesn’t meant that the suggestions are not worthwhile, but there’s nothing to be gained by blaming inequities, which could be due to a number of factors, to existing bigotry and racism in math, for which it offers no evidence. More important, the “course” they chart has to be shown to actually lead to more understanding than alternatives.
Here’s where blame is affixed. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that it adheres to white men.
Maths is built on a modern history of elevating the achievements of one group of people: white men. “Theorems or techniques have names associated to them and most of the time, those names are of nineteenth-century French or German men,” such as Georg Cantor, Henri Poincaré and Carl Friedrich Gauss, all of whom were white, says John Parker, head of the mathematical sciences department at Durham University, UK. This means that the accomplishments of people of other genders and races have often been pushed aside, preventing maths from being a level playing field. It has also squelched wider access to rich mathematical ideas developed by people of different backgrounds — such as Chike Obi, James Ezeilo and Adegoke Olubummo, a trio credited by the website Mathematicians of the African Diaspora with having pioneered modern maths research in Nigeria. Another example is Mary Golda Ross, a Cherokee mathematician and engineer who was a founding member of ‘Skunk Works’, a secretive division of the US aerospace manufacturer Lockheed. There, she developed early designs for space travel and satellites, among other things.
Where is the evidence that high quality and non-white mathematicians, of which until recently there were very few, are now being pushed aside by racism? I don’t doubt that there was discrimination in the past against women and minorities, but even then I keep thinking of the Indian Srinivasa Ramanujan, an immensely talented autodidact from Tamil Nadu who in 1913 sent a bunch of his theorems and proofs to G. H. Hardy at Cambridge, who instantly recognized the man’s talent and arranged for him to study at Cambridge. I can’t imagine anyone more “minoritized” in the UK than Ramanujan, dark of skin, poor, and humble of origin. And yet people helped him, and he’s still regarded as a giant in the field. Would people push him aside today—or anyone like him? I doubt it, just as I doubt that mathematics is presently rife with structural racism—that the playing field is still “far from level”. If “level” means “equal opportunity”, then I’d say we’re pretty close. If it means “equal outcoms”, I’d say, yes, it’s not level. But that’s not what a tilted playing field means: it means that right now there is not equal opportunity. Yes, the pipeline needs to fill up after a past of sexism and bigotry, but the article gives evidence for “structural bias” or “system bias” at the pipeline’s distal end.
Here’s what the advocates of decolonization advocate to replace the kind of math teaching we have today:
Edward Doolittle, a mathematician at First Nations University of Canada in Regina, contrasts Indigenous mathematics with the mainstream, global way of teaching maths, in which instructors essentially present the same content regardless of where they’re teaching.
Doolittle, who’s also a Mohawk person from Six Nations in southern Ontario, says that calculus courses are structured so similarly that he could teach the subject “anywhere the students speak English”, and even take over teaching a course midstream.
By contrast, he says that Indigenous mathematics involves getting inside a culture and examining the mathematical thinking in it. He draws a further distinction between Indigenous mathematics and the practice of what he calls “indigenizing mathematics”, which, he says, involves searching for cultural examples to use in courses taught in the global version of mathematics.
Indigenizing mathematics tweaks the curriculum when it isn’t feasible to fully immerse students in ideas from an Indigenous culture, Doolittle says. “It’s very hard, if not impossible, to break out of” the global mathematics system, he notes. By indigenizing mathematics, instructors can stay within the parameters of what they’re required to cover while broadening the cultural scope of their curriculum.
Using that approach, “we have respected the knowledge of Indigenous people and are furthering our ties with Indigenous people” while still teaching students core topics, he says. For example, when teaching statistics courses, Doolittle has discussed a simplified version of the Peach Stone Game, which is based on making wagers and is played in his community. “You can analyse this in terms of a binomial probability distribution,” or the chances of two outcomes over time, he says.
“I would like to encourage many of my colleagues to engage in indigenization efforts, and hopefully to turn up interesting examples from their local area,” Doolittle says.
As for how to “indigenize” math, the article gives a couple of examples beyond the Peach Stone Game: teaching about Polynesian navigation to Hawaiians in Hawaii and using aspects of local culture to teach math in five African countries (“the next Einstein will be African” is the motto of this five-nation consortium, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, or AIMS). And that’s about it. There is a lot of noise, but, as of yet, little to show that this kind of training produces results better than “non-indigenous” training. If it does work, more power to them. So far, most of the “indigenizing” appears to be mainly trying to increase the diversity of people going into math. That’s great, too, but it’s not a revolution in teaching math.
And even some of these endeavors involve bringing in mathematicians who aren’t indigenous. Here’s what AIMS does:
Faculty members at the centres are hired from African countries, often through partnerships with local universities. AIMS also hosts visiting lecturers from outside Africa who teach courses that range from a few weeks to two months in length. Bringing in outside researchers exposes students to top talent while they continue to expand their roots in Africa’s mathematical communities.
But isn’t it counterproductive to bring in “top talent”, probably white people, who undoubtedly teach math in decidedly non-Indigenous ways?
It’s clear that while I have no strong beef against using local culture or examples to teach math—or any form of science—this will go only so far (what happens when you get to really high-level math?), and if you’re going to do something like this, it’s better to start by showing in pilot projects that it really works. Blaming whiteness or the West on holding down math education in places like Africa (where whites are actually a minority), is no longer tenable, and even counterproductive.
But here’s the part I most object to. Durham University in the UK is itself mounting a decolonization effort that involves Ric Crossman, a statistician, and John Parker, head of Durham’s maths department. Here’s their philosophy of education:
Durham’s senior mathematicians felt that their curriculum-reform process had to be led by the students, because otherwise “we’re in the awful situation of deciding for ourselves what’s best for them”, Crossman says. That, Parker adds, would be at odds with the concept of decolonization, because colonization “was some group of people thinking they knew best for some other group of people”.
What an AWFUL situation! It’s certainly feasible for some students to tell you the best ways they can absorb mathematics, but this will certainly differ among students, and not every student knows. But to put the curriculum and all the teaching methods in the hands of the students, ignoring the experience of teachers who have spent years finding out which forms of pedagogy work in general, is a recipe for disaster. It’s simply invidious to denigrate the expertise of teachers by comparing it to “colonizers.” But such are the rhetorical tactics that progressives have learned to use.
I’ve been involved in writing some stuff about how Social Justice ideology—following Pluckrose and Lindsay, our capitals indicate the harmful form of social justice—has infected science, like my piece the other day on Biden’s plan to foster both equity and excellence in the arts. That turned out to be a plan to foster equity, with excellence simply equated to “equity” or seen as an inevitable byproduct of equity. The more I dig into how science is interacting with culture, the more worried I get that science really is under the thumb of Social Justice, and that merit and quality are being thrown under the bus in the name of “equity”. (I refer to proportional representation by presence in the U.S., not “equality of opportunity or treatment,” which poses no threat to anything.)
This new article by Rikki Schlott (a writer and activist) at the Free Press shows how deeply the termites have already dined in the arts. In fact, every endeavor, every field of work, and every organization in America is being ideologically captured by Social Justice, and this article shows how invidious it’s been in the arts—especially theater and ballet. I am now beginning to worry that our society is gradually transforming its culture into one resembling Stalin’s Russia, where every endeavor, including science and art, had to be done in the service of official ideology. In the end, that killed both science, much of which died a slow death under Stalin, and art, which we all know became tedious, political, and homogeneous under the same regime.
Schlott’s article also notes that in September of last year Biden signed an “Executive Order on Promoting the Arts, the Humanities, and Library Services” that is largely about advancing equity, though there are a few bits that seem to be identity-blind. But this account of what’s happening to the arts is hair-raising. It’s not due to the government, but to social pressure, to funding agencies who refuse to give money to artists unless they demonstrate a commitment to DEI, and to cultural authoritarians who, for example, refuse to hire a white sign-language interpreter to help deaf people understand words spoken by black people.
Click to read, and, as always, subscribe if you read often. I have resubscribed and managed to keep the initial $50 price per year, though I think it’s gone up for new subscribers (in fairness, the site has hugely expanded its stable of writers):
Art can properly be political of course (“The Crucible” is one example), but now all art is forced to be political, and artistic organizations forced to adhere to prescribed DEI criteria—ideologies. The piece starts with the story of Lincoln Jones, a (white) choreographer for the American Contemporary Ballet Company (ACBC). Because he refused to politicize his organization by putting a sign of support for Black Lives Matter on the company’s Instagram account, he lost a ton of funding, and it’s not clear that the ACBC will survive. It’s not that he disapproved of BLM, but that was trying to be institutionally neutral:
“Our dancers were free to post whatever they wanted on their own social media, but I knew I wasn’t going to do it on the company account,” [Jones] said. “That’s not part of our mission.”
Then the social media pushback began, demanding that Jones adhere to BLM publicly. Some of his dancers revolted too. Then he compounded the assault by making a few statements that poured oil on the fire:
In the face of mounting pressure from the dance world, Jones sent an email to his employees clarifying his position. “American Contemporary Ballet is not a political organization,” he wrote. “Our mission is great dance. It is not our prerogative to represent each other politically.”
. . . When an agent he hired to find funding and get a director for the projecttold him he needed to hire dancers of color from outside his company to get the film made, Jones objected.
“One of the things I will not do is hire by race or give preference by race,” he said. “Ballet does discriminate, just not by race. This is a highly athletic art form that discriminates by body, talent, and artistic sensitivity. You have to have a certain kind of feet and proportions. It’s not just a convention. It’s like an opera singer having a loud voice.”
That’s when he began losing funding—big time. The refusal to take race into account is a slap in the face of DEI, even though it comports with Dr. King’s famous words. Even conductors who audition potential orchestra musicians behind a screen, so that neither sex nor ethnicity can be known, are being criticized explicitly because they refuse to take race and gender into account.
Jones is in trouble, and so are the arts in general as they become politicized. There is pushback, but it’s largely anonymous because speech has been chilled.
That bargain—pledge allegiance to the new orthodoxy or stick to your mission and risk your career—is one now faced by many in the world of American fine arts.
I spoke to more than a dozen people working in dance, music, theater, and the visual arts. Some have won Pulitzer prizes. Others are just at the beginning of their careers. What they all have in common is a concern that DEI—short for diversity, equity, and inclusion, a catchall term for racial equity initiatives—is creeping into the arts and politicizing artistic expression.
But only a tiny number of those people have blown the whistle.
There are some “whistleblowers” who have gone public and even sued for being discriminated against because they were white (and got settlements), but in general people are fearful. It’s okay to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, but only if you were a private foundation that gets no federal funding. In other cases there can be no discrimination against “protected classes.” But there is: plenty of it, and, in the article, is based on race. Comply with DEI demands or give up a career in ballet, theater, or even visual arts:
Even some artists who are far in their career are too scared to comment about the new DEI demands.
“Artists already have enough challenges, and now we have all these layers of bureaucracy and mandates,” said one Pulitzer Prize–winning creative, who asked me not to print his name or even his field because he fears reprisals. “Artists are just too vulnerable to the vagaries of funding and cultural trends. Even those who are successful just can’t risk it. A freelance artist’s career could be over tomorrow if they make a fuss.”
He said he worries about America’s new generation of artists. “I’m established. I’m far enough along in my career that it doesn’t affect me as much as it does artists in [the younger] generation.”
Brent Morden is one of them. Morden is a white, 25-year-old music and choir director in New York City. Though he’s only at the beginning of his career, he said he’s already felt the crunch of funding and lost opportunities because he doesn’t tick any diversity boxes.
“When I see commissions or opportunities that are specifically looking for females or LGBTQ or BIPOC people to apply, I just sigh, wonder what this achieves, and move on,” he said. “Artistic institutions are adopting mission statements that sound nice and virtuous, but if you dig deeper under the surface, they’re promoting an agenda that doesn’t promote true and fair diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Two more bits for your enlightenment (I added the link to Landesman):
[Morden’s] feelings are echoed by renowned Broadway theater producer Rocco Landesman. From 2009 to 2012, Landesman served as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under the Obama administration. He told me he started noticing DEI creeping into the arts world around 2013 and has “no doubt” that “we’re seeing increasingly coercive guidelines.”
Landesman said he was shocked when, in 2019, a San Francisco school board voted to paint over a mural at George Washington High School that depicted the life of America’s first president, because it was deemed offensive to black and Native Americans.
“When you have art actually being destroyed because it doesn’t fit into a certain view of the world, that’s extremely alarming,” Landesman said.
Though the board reversed its decision last year, the controversy shows how the left has turned its back on the arts in the name of pursuing diversity, Landesman said.
“It’s shocking to see that proposed by progressives. I never thought we’d come to that point—it’s an amazing turn to see liberals be literally anti-art.”
Some information about how funding for art, like funding for science, depends increasingly on adherence to specific DEI criteria:
Today, many of America’s arts funders have made social justice the criteria for grants. Of the two dozen foundations I surveyed that are based in New York and California and fund the arts, fifteen either professed allegiance to DEI principles on their websites or explicitly stated they strive for racial equity via philanthropic endeavors. Of the handful of actual grant applications I could get my hands on, several required DEI statements or demographic data from applicants.
The S. Mark Taper Foundation, for instance, which doles out roughly $6 million in grants a year focused on arts, education, and social causes, has committed itself to “a continuing examination of privilege” ensuring “grantmaking that aligns with the values of diversity, equity and inclusion.” As part of their application, each organization must provide a list of their board members’ titles, length of service, and racial and ethnic profiles.
And the Ford Foundation, one of the most influential charitable organizations in the country, boasting a $16 billion endowment, has led a group of fifteen major donors in dedicating $160 million specifically to BIPOC arts organizations.
The parallels with science are multifarious: funding organizations, social media, and other artists are demanding adherence to Social Justice standards (in science we also have deans and administrations putting the pressure on). The whole situation is summed up by Landesman:
“We’re taking first-rate artists and making them into third-rate political activists,” he said.
“Art is supposed to unsettle us; art challenges what we feel about ourselves,” he continued. “But most of the art today affirms commonly held views of our society. You either fit in or you perish.”
In the first line, you could well replace “artists” with “scientists”. All in all—and this is not something I would have said two years ago—this forced ideological conformity is turning American culture into a modern version of the culture of Stalin’s Russia. In such a situation, quality is always eroded by ideology. And it’s not like this is the view of most people, because it isn’t. It’s the doing of a fraction of the populace who happen to be both loud and into grabbing power.
This three year old novel, which you can buy from Amazon in hardback for only $9.99, is the subject of Pamela Paul’s latest op-ed in the NYT (click on the second image below to read it). According to Paul, and judging by the news I’ve followed since American Dirt‘s publication, this book had a huge chilling effect on American publishing. It was, Paul maintains, the harbinger of the timorous and self-censoring publishing industry of modern America. But click below to read, and I’ll give a few excerpts.
Paul, as you may know, used to be the editor of the New York Times Book Review, so she knows the ins and outs of publishing, and that informs her harsh critique of how this book—written by Jeanine Cumins and published by Flatiron Press, an imprint of MacMillan—was treated by a woke mob.
Here are two lines from Wikipedia’s bio of Cummins. See if you can guess what the fracas was about from these:
Cummins’ 2020 novel, American Dirt, tells the story of a mother and bookstore owner in Acapulco, Mexico, who attempts to escape to the United States with her son after their family is killed by a drug cartel.
Jeanine Cummins identifies as both white and Latina. In a December 2015 New York Times opinion piece about her cousins’ murder, she mentions her Puerto Rican grandmother but also states “I am white…and in every practical way, my family is mostly white.”
Yes, this is a set-up for an accusation of Cultural Appropriation, and that’s what brought the book down, though it ultimately was translated into 33 languages, sold three million copies, and was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s “Book Club”, which guarantees huge sales. But the social-justice mob that went after this book, ignited by a single blog post, has, for the indefinite future, chilled all of publishing. For crying out loud, some people thought I’d have trouble publishing my children’s book set in India, Mr. Das and His Fifty Cats, because I’m not Indian. And indeed, that “conflict” has been mentioned to me by at least one editor. (No, I haven’t placed the book.)
On to Paul’s take:
The story in brief as she tells it:
Three years ago this month, the novel “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins landed in bookstores on a tsunami of enthusiasm. “Extraordinary,” Stephen King wrote in a pre-publication blurb. “Riveting, timely, a dazzling accomplishment,” raved Julia Alvarez. “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas,” Sandra Cisneros proclaimed. “This is the international story of our times. Masterful.”
The book’s momentum was nonstop. Riding on starred prepublication reviews from the trades, the book, a fast-paced road novel about a Mexican bookseller and her son trying to cross the border to escape a murderous drug cartel, was named an Indie Next List Pick by independent bookstores. Then came the rapturous reviews. “A thrilling adrenaline rush — and insights into the Latin American migrant experience,” raved The Washington Post. Cummins “proves that fiction can be a vehicle for expanding our empathy,” said Time magazine. Finally, the golden ticket: Oprah selected “American Dirt” for her book club. “I was opened, I was shook up, it woke me up,” Winfrey said.
It all fell apart with stunning speed. Following a blistering online campaign against the author and others involved in the book over who gets to write what, and in response to threats of violence against both author and booksellers, Cummins’s publisher, Flatiron Books, canceled her book tour. Cummins’s motives and reputation were smeared; the novel, eviscerated. “We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor,” Flatiron’s president said in a statement.
Looking back now, it’s clear that the “American Dirt” debacle of January 2020 was a harbinger, the moment when the publishing world lost its confidence and ceded moral authority to the worst impulses of its detractors. In the years since, publishers have become wary of what is now thought of as Another American Dirt Situation, which is to say, a book that puts its author and publishing house in the line of fire. This fear now hangs over every step of a fraught process with questions over who can write what, who should blurband who can edit permeating what feels like a minefield. Books that would once have been greenlit are now passed over, sensitivity readers are employed on a regular basis, self-censorship is rampant.
A creative industry that used to thrive on risk-taking now shies away from it. And it all stemmed from a single writer posting a discursive and furious takedown of “American Dirt” and its author on a minor blog. Whether out of conviction or cowardice, others quickly jumped on board and a social media rampage ensued, widening into the broader media. In the face of the outcry, the literary world largely folded.
If you want to see an unfair and nasty hit job, I suggest that you read the review of American Dirt below by writer Myriam Gurba, published on the blog Tropics of Meta (click screenshot below). In the title below, I see Gurba labels Cummins as “pendeja,” which apparently is “a mildly vulgar insult for ‘asshole’ or ‘idiot’ in Spanish” (female form). And “bronca” in Spanish means “row” or “beef”. So the very title begins with an insult:
It’s a short review, but accuses Cummins of cultural appropriation, not having the ethnic credibility to write about Mexico, and, by producing a highly touted book, taking undue credit and quashing the achievements from other Latino authors. Here’s a bit of Gurba’s invective (“gabacha” is a pejorative Spanish word for a non-Hispanic foreigner, a female):
A self-professed gabacha, Jeanine Cummins, wrote a book that sucks. Big time.
Her obra de caca belongs to the great American tradition of doing the following:
Appropriating genius works by people of color
Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estados-unidenses and
Repackaging them for mass racially “colorblind” consumption.
Rather than look us in the eye, many gabachos prefer to look down their noses at us. Rather than face that we are their moral and intellectual equals, they happily pity us. Pity is what inspires their sweet tooth for Mexican pain, a craving many of them hide. This denial motivates their spending habits, resulting in a preference for trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf. To satisfy this demand, Cummins tossed together American Dirt, a “road thriller” that wears an I’m-giving-a-voice-to-the-voiceless-masses merkin.
This vicious attack, laced with Spanish slang, is what launched a thousand sensitivity readers and the mentality that makes publishers wary of putting out any books not written by someone with the proper ethnic cred. Although Cummins has Hispanic genes, a 25% DNA titer was apparently not enough to make her qualified to write about Mexico (note that lots of writers with no Hispanic heritage have previously written about Mexico).
People who liked Cummins’s book suddenly retreated (there were some exceptions, including Latino writers) and Cummins was demonized by her fellow writers. She has not been asked to blurb books by other authors, as her name and endorsement are considered toxic. As Paul says, “if the proposal for ‘American Dirt’ landed on desks today, it wouldn’t get published.”
Here’s Paul’s example about how a Latino who defended writers’ use of “cultural appropriation” was treated:
For some aspiring writers, the mood remains pessimistic. “My take is the only take and the one everyone knows to be true but only admits in private: the literary world only accepts work that aligns with the progressive/woke point of view of rich coastal liberals,” the Latino writer Alex Perez said in an interview with Hobart magazine last fall. “This explains why everything reads and sounds the same, from major publishing houses to vanity zines with a readership of 15.” Shortly after publication of Perez’s interview, Hobart’s staff of editors quit and Perez was widely mocked on social media.
I guess Hobart’s editors saw themselves as HARMED by Perez’s interview.
This whole thing makes me ill. History is filled with great novels about men written by women (Middlemarch), about women written by men (I just finished the Beartown trilogy by Fredrik Backman, most of whose main characters are girls or women, and portrayed with great insight and sensitivity), and about people of one culture written about by those from another (just one example: Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Japan, now living in England, writes fantastic books about a variety of cultures, including robots). I know readers can think of other “exceptions” like these, for we’ve discussed them before.
It baffles me that you have to be from one gender or racial group to write well about it; it violates the very dictum that we’re all humans and share emotions and thoughts, even if our cultures differ. Nor do I buy the argument that Cummins’s writing about Mexico hurts other Latino authors and prevents them from getting attention. Especially these days, good writing is recognized by publishers. The problem is that they bridle if the good writing is about one ethnicity or gender yet produced by writers from another.
In truth, I don’t think you can make a rational argument for why the gender, race, religion, or ethnicity of an author should be ANY factor in judging their writing. Yes, their backgrounds can liven or add worthwhile nuances to a book, but it doesn’t give them a monopoly on describing their culture. In the end, it looks to me that people like Gurba are making a power grab on art, claiming that, because of their DNA, only they have the ability to write meaningfully about their own country or culture.
It’s nuts. But at least Paul, whose writing I like very much (subscribe to her column), ends on somewhat of a high note. For Cummins, despite being demonized and attacked, and despite having inadvertently turned publishing into an orgy of ethnic introspection, wrote a book that was an international bestseller:
History has shown that no matter how much critics, politicians and activists may try, you cannot prevent people from enjoying a novel. This is something the book world, faced with ongoing threats of book banning, should know better than anyone else.
“We can be appalled that people are saying, ‘You can’t teach those books. You can’t have Jacqueline Woodson in a school library.’ But you can’t stand up for Jeanine Cummins?” Ann Patchett said. “It just goes both ways. People who are not reading the book themselves are telling us what we can and cannot read? Maybe they’re not pulling a book from a classroom, but they’re still shaming people so heavily. The whole thing makes me angry, and it breaks my heart.”
Much remains broken in its wake. Jeanine Cummins may have made money, but at a great emotional, social and reputational cost. She wrote a book filled with empathy. The literary world showed her none.
Now I’m not sure that the word “tribe” in my title is an Approved Progressive Left Term®, but I can’t think of a better one for the nonce. And if that word were erased by the woke, according to this new article by Matthew Yglesias on his Substack site, I wouldn’t have much reason to complain. According to Yglesias, beefing about language changes, like the recent elimination of the word “field” and suggested replacement with “practicum” by the School of Social Work at USC, is going after low-hanging fruit, “one of the lowest forms of reactionary politics”. Does that make me and my fellow beefers “reactionaries”? Read by clicking the headline, and subscribe if you read regularly:
Yglesias, whose work I’m not that familiar with, was inspired by reading a John le Carré novel, A Murder of Quality. The novel apparently involves a British family who comes into money but isn’t of upper-class origin, and so has to learn proper upper-class British manners, like peeling an apple and then quartering it before eating it. This makes no sense to me, but that’s the point: this way of eating signals one’s membership in the club, which is necessary (along with money) to settle onself in the right circles.
Yglesias touts his familiarity with tribal language and behavior by touting his street cred, which, it turns out, is rich-people’s street cred. The guy has gone to all the ritzy and upper-class schools:
I went to a private high school called Dalton in New York which, at the time I attended, was known as a “progressive” school in the sense of its pedagogical philosophy. That was in contrast to a more “conservative” place like Grace Church School where I went for K-8.
But these days, both institutions have become progressive in a political sense. On its website, Dalton has an extensive statement about the school’s commitment to “equity and inclusion” that seems on its face at odds with the basic reality of being a school that charges $57,970 per year in tuition.
The obvious question about this is why would exclusive institutions, the primary purpose of which is to provide additional advantages in life to academically talented students with rich parents, be so invested in an ostensibly egalitarian ideology?
Good question. The parents, of course did push back against this ideology, which is what my post is about.
Then Yglesias went to Harvard, and there he learned another trick of the elite: how to tie a bow tie before attending a black-tie dinner:
One of the things I learned at Harvard was how to tie a bow tie. The university, as a deliberately retro move, hosted a lot of black-tie events. Kirkland House had an annual formal dance, and I believe the other houses did, too. But there were many other black-tie events linked to the arts — if you had a friend who was in a play, you might get invited to a black-tie premiere.
I think contemporary university administrators would struggle a little bit to explain why there are black-tie events on campus. But I can tell you that I went to more than one per year, every year, for the four years that I was a student and exactly one since graduating.
And the penny dropped vis-à-vis Carré’s book: these complex language changes, like “practicum” (or “Latinx”, which nearly all Hispanics refuse to use), are actually inegalitarian: they setss the users and speakers apart from the hoi polloi.
Today things are different, and one thing you’d learn in a fancy American school is why you shouldn’t talk about the economic underdevelopment of Africa like this. You’d learn better etiquette. Or at least different etiquette — etiquette that will differentiate you from less sophisticated people who might run around saying offensive things about poverty in the Global South. For instance, a person without a proper education might refer to the countries in question as “the third world” without having read Marc Silver’s January 2021 NPR piece about why this is offensive. But to Bright’s point, speaking differently doesn’t actually change anything.
And that, perhaps, is a big part of the appeal.
In the USC case, and others like it, Yglesias notes that the ostensible motivation for changing words is to be “more inclusive”. And that is the case. “Latinx”, for example, was confected by non-“Latinx” people to erase the supposed misogyny of “Latino” (a male form) and “Latinos” (a general plural which also happens to mean “a group of men”). If you use the neutral “Latinx,” you’re showing that you’re an in-the-know progressive.
Yglesias has a point, though it’s not novel to argue that signs of wokeness are purely performative and accomplish no meaningful social change. Yglesias goes a step further, though, and argues that terms like “practicum” (and I’d add “Latinx” or “global South” here) actually foster inequality by buttressing tribalism.
Now I’m not sure that the terms are intended to buttress inequality, though fostering tribalism is probably a major part of their genesis. But I doubt that they do increase inequality—any more than using woke language reduces inequality. What I object to, I guess, is how he takes people like me to task—people who beef about the constant turnover of language (my bolding below):
Language is arbitrary and always changing, so personally I find “getting mad at language change” to be one of the lowest forms of reactionary politics. At the same time, it’s worth just applying a little bit of common sense to the question of who is and isn’t included by saying “practicum” instead of “field.” Highly educated people and white-collar workers who spend a lot of time bored at the office staring at computer screens and reading articles are well positioned to have large and flexible vocabularies. We are used to learning new words and learning how to use them.
I am quite fluent in why we don’t characterize non-white people as “minorities” anymore, and even why affirmatively characterizing them as “people of color” is in favor rather than saying “non-white,” which tends to center whiteness. I know what it means to “center” something. I know that URM stands for under-represented minorities, and that we tend not to spell it out because “minorities” is out of favor. I also know what URM means (not Asians) and how URM is distinguished from BIPOC. I don’t talk about third-world countries.
I know these things in large part for the same reason I know how to tie a bow tie. And while everyone knows about Skull & Bones, I also know about Scroll & Key and can tell you which school has eating clubs. But while there may be merit to cultivating a set of esoteric practices for the sake of maintaining a national (or these days, increasingly, global) elite class that can recognize its fellow members, that’s like saying (à la John Rawls) that there may be reasons for even egalitarians to support a certain amount of inequality.
These elite institutions and codes of manners are not egalitarian, not just because manners are insufficient but because their purpose is to be inegalitarian. Changing “field” into “practicum” doesn’t include more people — it’s a new means of excluding people whose information is out of date.
But when I think of it, I’m not mad at language change just because I am a conservative who doesn’t like change. I’m mad at changes like “field” to “practicum” because it’s pompous, unnecessary and stupid given the ubiquity of the word “field” in other contexts, and above all because it’s purely performative. And I guess that’s not so different from what Yglesias thinks. The difference is that he also believes that these languages changes palpably decrease inclusiveness, and thus do the opposite of what the users claim to want. And there I think he’s wrong. The language changes, regardless of their motivation, don’t change anything about society.
There are two ways I can criticize the uber-woke paper below that was published in from The Journal of Chemical Education (an organ of the American Chemical Society). I could go through it in detail and point out the fallacies and undocumented claims, and note where “progressive” ideology simply overwhelms the science. I could highlight why it’s a bit of hyper-Left propaganda, designed to force students in a Chemistry, Feminism and STEM course to think in a certain way.
Or I could simply mock it as an example of politicized science that is so over the top that it could appear without change in The Onion.
Way #1 would waste a lot of my time, and I’ve gone through this kind of exegesis many times before. Way #2 would bring out the splenetic readers who say that I shouldn’t make fun of dumb papers like this but instead take them apart line by line—that mockery is not an effective weapon. But it is. Why else would Stanford have remove its list if disapproved words and phrases had not the Wall Street Journal mocked the list? “Mockery makes you look bad,” these jokers would say, “and it’s unintellectual.”
I’m rejecting both ways today in favor of The Third Way: let the paper reveal its own ideology, postmodern craziness, and authoritarianism by just giving quotes. In other words, I’ll let it mock itself.
You can access the paper for free by clicking on the screenshot below, or see the pdf here.
The abstract gives an idea of the purpose of the course: to indoctrinate students in the authors’ brand of feminism, CRT, and other aspects of woke ideology. It wants to rid chemistry of White Supremacy, for the unquestioned assumption is that chemistry education is riddled with white supremacy. If you read the authors seriously, you’d think that all chemistry teachers put on white robes and burned crosses after school:
ABSTRACT: This article presents an argument on the importance of teaching science with a feminist framework and defines it by acknowledging that all knowledge is historically situated and is influenced by social power and politics. This article presents a pedagogical model for implementing a special topic class on science and feminism for chemistry students at East Carolina University, a rural serving university in North Carolina. We provide the context of developing this class, a curricular model that is presently used (including reading lists, assignments, and student learning outcomes), and qualitative data analysis from online student surveys. The student survey data analysis shows curiosity about the applicability of feminism in science and the development of critical race and gender consciousness and their interaction with science. We present this work as an example of a transformative pedagogical model to dismantle White supremacy in Chemistry.
At the outset they get off on the wrong foot: by asserting that sex is not binary (all bolding is mine):
When scientifically established facts, such as the nonbinary nature of both sex and gender are seen by students of science as a belief, one might ask: Are we being true to scientific knowledge? We use this student comment as a reflection of the subjectivity of how the pedagogical decisions are made in teaching “true science” vs what existing scientific knowledge tells us. This has resulted in the propagation of scientific miseducation for generations.
Sadly, it’s the authors who are miseducated here. Whatever they think, biological sex in vertebrates is binary, and to teach otherwise is the real distortion of education.
They have a new term, too, though I don’t see how it differs from either systemic racism, unconscious bias, or deliberate racism. (The “King’ mentioned, by the way, is not Martin Luther King, Jr.):
King introduced a new term, dysconscious racism, defined as an acceptance of dominant White norms and privileges arising from the uncritical habit of the mind leading to the maintenance of the status quo. In contrast to unconscious bias which has been quoted as involuntary and used in the academy often, King’s idea of dysconcious racism demands a critical analysis of the history of systemic discrimination in the institutions and coming up with effective interventions.
Below is the authoritarianism, breathless in its arrogance. I used to think that it was an exaggeration to compare the radicalization of science with the Lysenko movement in Stalin’s Russia. Now I’m not so sure! We’ve put our feet on that path. Is there any ideological buzzworda missing in the following paragraph?:
In this article we describe the development, implementation, and student experience from a special topic course in chemistry, Science and Feminism, as a disruptive tool to challenge the status quo in Chemistry. Using Critical Race Theory and intersectional feminism as the framework, this course aimed at creating an intellectual as well as physical space for STEM students at East Carolina University (ECU) where they could explore their identities and how these intersect with the knowledge base and the pedagogy of science by looking at these from historical, political, and feminist lens. The other aim was to shine light, through this process, how scientific epistemology and culture have strong links with capitalism, enslavement, colonization, and exploitation of female-bodied folks. We provide the historical context of teaching this class in our institution, development of the course syllabus, assignments, and evaluations adopted for this course over the past two years as a template for future course development. In the Discussion and Conclusion section, we also provide a short description from qualitative analysis of online student surveys to understand what students thought about the importance of such a STEM course. Finally, this course is intended to produce an affirming space that will allow minoritized students to enter a chemistry class without having to leave their identities at the metaphorical and physical door of STEM classes.
But you’re supposed to leave your identities at the door. Science is science and the pursuit of the truth, and what truths are apprehended, should be independent of the characteristics of the person who does science.
Below is the “all must have prizes” bit. Sadly, given that there are more candidates for academic jobs than there are jobs, some people aren’t going to make it. Here’s a statement that East Carolina University, where most of the authors come from, put on their website after George Floyd was murdered:
That same year, the Chemistry Department posted an antiracism statement on its Web site, which stated: “…That means we, as a department, must continually self-reflect and ask hard questions of ourselves. Do our pedagogy, assignments, exams, and grading practices help everyone to succeed?”
This means, of course, that if some students don’t succeed, it’s the fault of the teachers. Ergo a new course in which everyone succeeds, and, I suppose, in which there is no ranking of merit.
Here are the four parts of the course, each accompanied by readings from the appropriate propaganda (note: there is NO dissent in the readings, which you can see in the article):
Unit 1 readings (Table 2) focused on introducing students to the history of American feminism and its contribution/effect as felt in STEM epistemology. This unit also comprised of readings that critically looked at the DEI work in the Academy and its connection complicatedness dysconcious racism. As experiential learning, this unit also invited students to think and talk about their individual relationship with the word feminism, STEM culture, and their own identities. The end of the unit assignments was writing a reflection from all the readings and participation in a debate with the topic: Science done by a feminist and feminist practice in science are the same thing.
Unit 2 included readings (Table 2) that exposed students to the historical context of pathologizing the pregnant womb and the construction of gynecology as a White male discipline while utilizing Black and Indigenous bodies as experimental subjects. We further explored the development of (Black, Indigenous, and Brown) races as inferior and pathological throughout the development of modern science. As experiential learning, students participated in discussions on their interaction with the medical system as immigrants, women, women of color, and LGBTQIA2S+ individuals. The end of the unit assignments was writing a reflection from all the readings and participation in a debate with the topic: Health care providers (doctors, dentists, nurses, PA, PT, and administrators) should be required to learn the history of medical racism, sexism, and homo/transphobia and their legacy as part of their licensing process, and it should be an ongoing training than a onetime one. Students were also suggested to watch the 2017 movie, The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks.
Unit 3 explored the development and interrelationship between quantum mechanics, Marxist materialism, Afro-futurism/pessimism, and postcolonial nationalism. To problematize time as a linear social construct, the Copenhagen interpretation of the collapse of wave-particle duality was utilized. The end of the unit assignments was writing a reflection from all the readings and participation in a debate with the topic: past is never dead, it is not even past. The students also had the option of watching the 2020 movie, Antebellum. However, the instructor was flexible on this assignment as some of the African American students did not want to watch it and be triggered. They wrote a reflection on a book on race and gender that they had read.
Unit 4 consisted of reading articles in STEM that used identity (racial/gender/sexuality) as empirical parameters and how that can further propagate the absoluteness of these categories rather than dismantling these constructed realities. The end of the unit assignments was writing a reflection from all the readings and participation. There was no debate for this unit as this was close to the semester end.
Besides the reading assignments, there are essays in which students are expected to parrot back the woke pabulum they’ve been fed:
The final assignment was a full paper with an intervention plan that might be implemented in their own institution/department which will enable students to create a STEM identity which acknowledges and respects their personal identity. For 2021 and 2022 classes, the intervention topics that students wrote about were as follows: the importance of all-gender bathrooms in STEM buildings, the importance of teaching how race, gender, sexuality, etc. are created and pathologized by STEM as a medical college course, how to increase accessibility of STEM as a discipline without erasing the lived experiences of URM students, and how the American STEM identity can incorporate the immigrant student/scholar experience.
At this point I wondered if this course had anything to do with science beyond using the “field” (excuse me) as an example of racism and white supremacy. I don’t think so. It’s ideological propaganda, pure and simple, and even worse than the forms dished out in “studies” courses. ‘
There’s a section on “Social Location of the Authors and Their Relation to This Course.” Here’s just a bit:
M.A.R. participated in the special topic chemistry class in Spring 2021 as a biology graduate student. She is a young adult Filipino cis woman who was raised in a middle-class rural town in North Carolina for most of her childhood by immigrant parents.D.M. consulted on the design and delivery of the course as well as the preparation of this manuscript. He is a middle-aged White cis-gendered man who was raised in a suburban Philadelphia family with a diverse set of adopted and foster siblings. He approaches this work largely trained in a Jesuit social ethics tradition and currently serves as a student affairs educator responsible for community engagement, leadership, and DEI experiential programming.
S.B. designed and taught this class as a special topic in chemistry class in Spring 2021 and then in Spring 2022. They are a middle-aged Indian immigrant working in the US higher education. They identify as gender nonconfirming and a brown-immigrant-queer. They were raised in an upper caste and middle-class, college educated family in an urban environment in India and experiences and understands this world from these complex vantage points. These social locations of S.B. also influenced the texts and topics discussed in this course which centered around the historical relationship of Black and Brown and colonized people with modern STEM discipline.
I’m not sure whether this is relevant for teaching propaganda, though it tells us why it’s being taught. It also help establish the authors’ “identity credibility”.
Finally, there’s the obligatory land acknowledgment at the end. It’s a long one!
The authors acknowledge that this article was conceived, researched, and written on Indigenous land and “We acknowledge the Tuscarora people, who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognize their continuing connection to the land, water, and air that Greenville consumes. We pay respect to the eight state-recognized tribes of North Carolina; Coharie, Eastern Band of Cherokee, Haliwa-Saponi, Lumbee, Meherrin, Occaneechi Band of Saponi, Sappony, and Waccamaw-Siouan, all Nations, and their elders past, present, and emerging”.
Does this help the indigenous Americans? I don’t see how. I’m sure the Native Americans would prefer getting the land back than this faux form of “respect.”
To end, I point out what I think is an error. You can correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there was a “Tuskegee airmen” case that falls under the “history of medical racism”. I believe the authors are referring here to the four-decade “Tuskegee syphilis study” ending in 1972. It truly was a dark episode in the history of medical ethics: an experiment in which black men infected with syphilis were left untreated so that the US Public Health Service could observe the effects of untreated disease. These men could have been treated, but weren’t; they weren’t told what they had; and they were promised medical treatment but lied to. This could not happen today, but it was a horrible, horrible thing to do to these people, and was certainly motivated in part by racism. Below is the conflation of this study with another group associated with Tuskegee:
The syphilis study had nothing to do, as far as I know, with the Tuskegee airmen, a group of black pilots who fought gallantly during WWII, despite the military having been segregated. They were the first black military aviators, and received many plaudits and decorations for their bravery and work. But the group had, as far as I know, nothing to do with the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, except that both groups of men were associated in some way with the historically black Tuskegee Institute, which later became Tuskegee University. So much for checking the facts!
The Upshot: This is without doubt the most annoying, misguided, and misplaced paper on science education I’ve read in the last five years. The American Chemical Society should be ashamed of itself.
Last November 18 the Oxford Union debated the proposition, “This House Believes Woke Culture Has Gone Too Far.” The page with all the YouTube videos—eight of them—is here, and I’ll put them below because I run an accommodating website.
. . . the Union voted last night 89-60 in favour of the motion “This House believes woke culture has gone too far.”
On his website, James Lindsay, who was put on the side arguing that woke culture has NOT gone too far, gives his account of the debate and says this:
I don’t intend to give a blow-by-blow summary of the debate. I encourage people to watch my part and the others for that (four speakers argued for ten minutes each, alternating sides). Instead, I want to summarize my argument and what I was doing with it and draw out a couple of important other points. My argument was simple: taken on its own terms, “Woke culture” has not gone too far because it cannot go too far.
Here you go, all eight presentations in order. Why couldn’t they just post a single video?
Every day the language policing gets more and more ludicrous, but this example, from the School of Social Work of the University of Southern California, takes the cake. I can no longer say that “my field is evolutionary biology” because that is racist language. The connection, as outlined in the official letter below from the USC group, is that enslaved people went “into the field” in the antebellum South. That makes the word “field” off limits. But farmers were going into the field long before that!
Now the recommended verbiage is “my practicum is evolutionary biology.” At that point people will say “Whaaaat???” And, as several readers note below, the words “field work” for biologists are also unacceptable; I suppose the alternative is “ecological labor in the great outdoors”.
I don’t think people will buy this change. Note that USC’s stated goal is not just to change language but to “acknowledge inclusion and reject white supremacy, anti-immigrant, and anti-blacknesss ideologies.” I don’t think that this aim will come to mind when someone says “practicum.”
The thing that strikes me is that someonehadto see the world “field” as racist, and then take action to expunge it from USC’s language. You have to be sniffing around very hard for offense to do something like that. And I suspect that their goal, in fact, isn’t any of the ones they state, but simply to assert power. How bizarre that these initiatives actually work in today’s America!
If you think this is fake, it’s not: it’s been reported by quite a few venues. They’re mostly right-wing sites, of course, because the mainstream media would never highlight something like this, as it makes the progressive Left, as well as academia, look too crazy. It’s stuff like this that Republicans use to tar not just the “woke”, but all Democrats and left-centrists.
There are good cases to be made for changing some language, but this isn’t one of them.
Honorific namings for people should recognize rare or exceptional levels of achievement, contributions to the University, and/or commitments to advance core University values. Those so honored should have to their credit achievements or virtues that the University hopes its students would seek to emulate.
Honorific namings may also recognize or memorialize historical events or milestones in the University’s history.
As the University expands the portfolio of honorific namings on campus, it should take into account the University’s aspiration to be diverse and inclusive. While not every honorific naming need increase the diversity of campus names, the overall trajectory of such namings should do so.
When a conservative columnist says something I agree with on the whole, I have no reservations about highlighting it regardless of the person’s politics. And George Will has been getting more liberal these days.
Will’s latest Washington Post column, written more passionately than is his usual wont, deals with Princeton University’s discussions about removing a statue of John Witherspoon (1723-1794), considered one of the founding fathers of America, and was also the only clergyman who signed the Declaration of Independence (so much for America being founded as a Christian Nation!). This is from his Wikipedia biography:
John Witherspoon (February 5, 1723 – November 15, 1794) was a Scottish-American Presbyterian minister, educator, farmer, slaveholder, and a Founding Father of the United States. Witherspoon embraced the concepts of Scottish common sense realism, and while president of the College of New Jersey (1768–1794; now Princeton University) became an influential figure in the development of the United States’ national character. Politically active, Witherspoon was a delegate from New Jersey to the Second Continental Congress and a signatory to the July 4, 1776, Declaration of Independence. He was the only active clergyman and the only college president to sign the Declaration. Later, he signed the Articles of Confederation and supported ratification of the Constitution of the United States.
Reading on, you’ll see part of what he accomplished for Princeton during his 26-year Presidency:
At the age of 45, [Witherspoon] became the sixth president of the college, later known as Princeton University. Upon his arrival, Witherspoon found the school in debt, with weak instruction, and a library collection which clearly failed to meet student needs. He immediately began fund-raising—locally and back home in Scotland—added three hundred of his own books to the library, and began purchasing scientific equipment including the Rittenhouse orrery, many maps, and a terrestrial globe. Witherspoon instituted numerous reforms, including modeling the syllabus and university structure after that used at the University of Edinburgh and other Scottish universities. He also firmed up entrance requirements, which helped the school compete with Harvard and Yale for scholars.
He also taught belles lettres, chronology (history), and divinity, and his speciality, moral philosophy. Witherspoon was said to be very popular with faculty and students alike. But you can see what’s “problematic” in the second paragraph, and why Princeton is considering removing his statue.
Click to read Will’s column.
Yes, Witherspoon had slaves—two of them. But before you say that such an act damns him for eternity, mandating the removal of his name from everything as well as prompting us to remove his statues, note what Will says about him:
As Princeton’s president, this “animated son of liberty” (John Adams’s description of the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence) ensured the precarious institution’s survival. His students included future congressmen, senators, Supreme Court justices and a president — James Madison stayed an extra year to study with Witherspoon.
Kevin DeYoung, now serving as a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina, wrote his 2019 doctoral dissertation on Witherspoon. DeYoung’s judgment is that Witherspoon believed three things about slavery, two of them true: Slavery was wrong, immediate emancipation was impossible, but America’s moral evolution would extinguish it within two generations.
DeYoung explains, without drawing conclusions from, three facts: In Scotland, Witherspoon baptized a runaway slave claimed by a member of Witherspoon’s church. At Princeton, Witherspoon tutored free Blacks. And Witherspoon’s will listed two slaves “until they are 28.” He had proposed a New Jersey law to free slaves at that age who were born after the law’s passage.
John Knox Witherspoon (1723-1794) served as Princeton’s sixth president from 1768 to 1794. He personally owned slaves and publicly lectured and voted against the abolition of slavery in New Jersey, yet he also tutored several African and African American students. His actions and writings illustrate his sometimes contradictory positions on slavery. Likewise, his children and their families wrestled with the complexities and moral dilemmas of slavery.
Will is exercised by this as an example of authoritarian wokeness, which he sees in those who force people to “adhere to orthodoxy”.
But Will doesn’t get into that orthodoxy. To use the language of the woke, his column lacks “nuance”, and so he just rails against wokeness. This doesn’t mean his column is worthless, but he does miss the main point of why removing Witherspoon’s statue is a perfectly debatable issue. He goes on:
Princeton’s current contretemps, however, fascinatingly illustrates how wokeness, which lacks limiting principles, limits opposition to itself.
. . .Today’s disparagement of Witherspoon is more than just another example of “presentism” — judging the past through the lens of the present. It illustrates how the woke become a suffocating, controlling minority
Princeton’s Committee on Naming has been holding “listening sessions” to ascertain what Princetonians think about the statue. But who is speaking? Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS), an alumni organization much more devoted than the university’s administration and trustees are to viewpoint diversity, notes that “the atmosphere on campus greatly inhibits students, faculty, and others from stating their true views” on “highly politicized issues,” which nowadays most issues become.
Will makes a big deal about the self-censoring of Princeton students, surely because it’s the woke political climate that demands erasure of Witherspoon, but I’m not sure how a discussion of self-censorship, with the data now well known, advances his argument. Nevertheless, Will does point out the fact that debate about Witherspoon should be allowed on campus without being chilled, and adds, which one can’t mention too often, that no, a University is not like your parent’s home where you weren’t allowed to talk back. Your school is not your home and the administration is not your parents, nor are you guaranteed four years’ of mental comfort at Princeton—although the school is doing its best to ensure that!
The data, in case you wanted it:
In the Free Speech Ranking survey by the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), only 55 percent of Princeton students said it was never acceptable to block other students from attending a campus speech, only 25 percent said it was never acceptable to shout down a speaker, only 23 percent said they were very comfortable expressing their views during classroom discussions of political topics. There is no reason to think Princeton significantly differs from FIRE’s finding that only 14 percent of students nationwide would be very comfortable speaking freely in public settings, such as “listening sessions.”
PFS notes that the anti-Witherspoon cohort says Princeton is a “home,” therefore everyone should be protected from feeling “less at home” because of, say, unhappy thoughts occasioned by a statue. But a university is not a “home.” A university’s raison d’être, unlike a family’s, is civil but robust and unsettling questionings and disagreements. (Although a family without controversies sounds unlikely and unappealing.)
But importantly, Will does point out the seeming hypocrisy of “erasing” one Founding Father who had two slaves whom he would free, while leaving on the pedestals other Founders who not only had more slaves, but weren’t as conflicted about it as was Witherspoon—founding fathers like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, who of course are still honored. That’s a good point, and should spark discussion about not only “presentism,” but also about where the line is that separates the damned from the honored. Why does a semi-abolitionist who had two slaves but was also a popular and accomplished President of Princeton, as well as a Founding Father, and a tutor of black people, receive more opprobrium than does Jefferson and Washington, who owned dozens of slaves and treated them poorly?
Unfortunately, although I do bring in wokeness at times, I prefer to show how it damages society rather than just rail about it. In contrast, Will seems to use the statue mainly as an excuse to harp about this new religion. I don’t disagree with him, but he’s leaving out the issues that he says are being ignored by Princeton. This is only a small bit of his jeremiad:
The fires of wokeness will soon be starved of fuel by the sterile monotony of wokeness’s achievement: enforced orthodoxy. Campuses are becoming burned-over places, sullen about the scarcity of things to deplore and cancel within their gates. Beyond those gates, society increasingly regards academia with, at best, bemusement.
Nevertheless, in their leafy quarantine, the woke will have the consolation of vanity. Wokeness has many flavors but one purpose: self-flattery. Wokeness tells its disciples how morally superior they are to almost everyone, ever. The woke have revised the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s maxim about the moral universe to: “The arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward me.”
Bent by such people, a university becomes, as PFS says, “a place where orthodoxy is imposed and only a narrow version of history and knowledge is accepted.” So, not a university.
But the thing is, Will doesn’t menton what kind of argument could be had about this deplatforming. I’ve outlined it a bit above, but will expand a tad more.
If you asked a woke Princeton student who still had a brain (these are very rare), “Why do we keep Washington and Jefferson statues up but want to pull down Witherspoon’s?”, the student would probably say this. “Well, all these Founders owned slaves, but Witherspoon didn’t do enough to compensate for his enslaving two people.”
And that produces the debate we need: “Resolved: Were two slaves enough to erase a man who was not only ambiguous about slavery but did so much good for others?”
My answer to this question would be that we shouldn’t pull down Witherspoon’s statue because he adheres to Coyne’s Criteria for removing honors. Here are the criteria I use:
1.) Was the statue or honor put in place to celebrate something good that a person did rather than the bad?
2.) Did the good achieved by the person’s life outweigh the bad?
If the answer to both is “yes”, then you leave the person’s statue up, or keep his name on an award. If you wish to qualify the person’s life with a placard or other virtuous signal saying that NOW WE KNOW SOME OF THE STUFF WAS BAD, that’s ok; it’s just history.
In Witherspoon’s case, the answer to the first question is clearly “yes”.
Further, given what the man did at Princeton, given that he tutored free blacks, baptized a slave, and let his two slaves go free at the age of 28, and given his services in founding the country and revamping Princeton, the answer to the second question, in my view, is “yes”. If he had slaves in a time when that was universally disparaged and very rare, the answer might be different. But now we have a more enlightened view of using other people as chattel than did Witherspoon’s peers. We simply can’t ignore “presentism.” If we did, we would erase the entire history of men who lived before two centuries ago because they all held sexist views. In sum, although Jefferson infused the founding of America with more of his ideas, and founded the University of Virginia as opposed to being its president, he also had more slaves than did Witherspoon, and therefore hurt more people.
I would say that if Witherspoon hadn’t existed at all, the world would have been a worse place (remember that the slaves he kept would have been the property of someone else, but probably not treated as well).
It is of course a debatable issue, but the hegemony of “presentism” is so strong that we forget that we ourselves will be looked upon in a few centuries as an unenlightened people. One reason, I think, is because we not only eat meat, which itself isn’t a sin, but treat our meat animals very badly and make their lives miserable. And there are other bad things we do, like executing prisoners, keeping them in horrible prison conditions, and usually don’t allow terminally ill people to end their lives with dignity when they want to. As Dr. Pinker constantly reminds us, morality improves, and that should remind us not to demonize everyone in the past who doesn’t adhere strictly to the curent form of morality espoused by the woke.
Here’s the statue that may be removed (image from flickr):