Spooks and Speech Controls

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A
Review of The
Human Stain
by Philip Roth (New York: Houghton Mifflin,
2000)

Daphe
Patai, writing in the Chronicles of Higher Education, reports
on the bizarre events at a recent conference she attended. The topic
was academic freedom. The point of the gathering was not to defend
the idea but to raise fundamental questions about its merit. The usual gaggle of academic despots trashed reason, standards, and clear thought, but among the dissidents was Harvey Silvergate, the co-author of The
Shadow University
, who spoke in defense of the idea of equality
before the law – the law in this case being campus codes on
speech harassment. It is contrary to justice to permit every manner
of attacks on white males, he said, while punishing the every perceived
slight to blacks and women.

A
response from the floor went as follows: equal treatment is a dangerous
idea since it leaves inequality untouched. Whites, he implied, deserve
whatever is dished out and hence those who attack them must be more
free to speak than the subjects of attack or those who would defend them. There is perfect
justice. Was the speaker decried as a McCarthyite who wants to suppress
dissent? Was he snubbed for advocating a dam on the free flow of
ideas? Far from it. He was greeted with applause.

Murray
Rothbard was fond of pointing out the underlying basis of political
correctness. As he saw it, leftist academics favored freedom so
long they weren't in power, but this isn't the basis of a genuine commitment to freedom. Once in power, they worked to run the university the way
Pol Pot managed reeducation camps, tolerating no dissent and demanding
not only compliant behavior but conformism in every thought as well.

In the early 1950s, Bill Buckley wrote God and Man at Yale to demonstrate that the idea of “academic freedom” masked a conspiracy to change the curriculum in a leftist direction. In the course of his argument, however, Buckley raised fundamental questions about the utility of permitting free thought and speech on campus. Is it any wonder why he has again become the toast of Yale? At last the faculty has come around to the view that academic freedom serves no useful educational purpose.

Now
one of Rothbard's favorite writers, Philip Roth, has written a penetrating
novel that illustrates this point perfectly. His story is about
one persecuted academic, Coleman Silk, a professor of literature
and classics at a small Massachusetts college. The book is an extremely valuable contribution to a growing literature of dissent. Already in print
are many comic send ups of politically correct restrictions on campus,
along with some nonfiction documentary accounts of the thought-control
absurdities. But Roth's book is something different: it treats the
threat from the left as something more ominous than a misguided
fashion that will soon pass; he sees the desire to degrade and dehumanize any dissidents
from leftist orthodoxy as an extremely serious threat to thought
and learning and thus the academy itself. Even more importantly, he has dissected and displayed the psychological basis of the desire to reconstruct or muzzle old-school faculty, and created compelling archetypes easily recognizable to anyone familiar with the current academic game.

The
story is this. Five weeks into the semester, two students in Professor
Silk's class had still not shown up. Irritated, Silk asked "Does
anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?"
Well, it turns out that, unbeknownst to him, the students were black.
Horror! Apostasy! Silk was named a racist, and from there begins
the trajectory from denouncement to persecution to total banishment.
It didn't matter that he didn't know the students were black; it
didn't matter that he was using the first definition of spooks in
the dictionary, not blacks but ghosts. Nothing mattered because
Silk had tred on sacred ground, and so the long and distinguished
career of a brilliant and learned 71-year-old classicist came to an end.

Roth
understands something important about the accusation of racism.
In the dynamic of today's campus life, anti-racist codes are not
really about enforcing a kind of social etiquette, universally applied. They are about
power exercised by some over others. None of Silk's accusers really believed that Silk –
who, it turns out, was born black and remade himself as Jewish –
was a racist. They used the label to attack what he represented:
an old-school classicist who demanded high standards from students
and faculty alike. In the course of his long career at "Athena
College" he had ruffled many feathers. His remark about "spooks"
only presented an opportunity for his enemies to slay him as an
example to others who might question the power of the new regime
on campus.

Silk
believes that his traumatic dismissal from campus is what led to
his wife's death. In any case, it is certainly what begins a long
series of tragedies that Silk both suffers and brings on himself. The reader can
only wince as the pace of events takes us through an increasingly
miserable downfall: his writing of an huge apologia named "Spooks"
which he then tosses out; his frenzied relations with his new paramour,
an illiterate woman on the college's janitorial staff; his relations
with former colleagues, who either abandon him out of fear or cheer
on his destruction to stay on the right side of history; his failing relations
with his children; and his final end.

The
events are described in the voice of several characters, each with
a dramatically different but always pathetic take on things. Roth
has an amazing ability to inhabit the minds and souls of all his characters, but none better than Delphine Roux, the young French literary theorist whom Silk hired in a weak moment. She uses the apparatus of deconstructionism
and its rarified vocabulary, along with a relentlessly feminist
take on the world, to immunize herself from attack from colleagues
and to belittle classics and traditional critics she either has not read or cannot understand.

In
Roth's portrayal of this woman, her style masks a lack of learning and scholarly confidence,
and her political ideology is a weapon to use against anyone who threatens
to expose her as the flake that she is. She, of course, was glad to see Silk go, on grounds
that he is an obvious sexist. He once showed no sympathy for a student
who complained she couldn't understand his lecture on Euripides because of his "engendered language." Roux takes the
side of the student. Silk responds with the following sermon on the
slovenliness of political correctness:

"Almost
without exception, my dear, our students are abysmally ignorant.
They've been incredibly badly educated. Their lives are intellectually
barren. They arrive knowing nothing and most of them leave knowing
nothing. Least of all do they know, when they show up in my class,
how to read classical drama…. They know, like, nothing.
After nearly forty years of dealing with such students – and
Miss Mitnick is merely typical – I can tell you that a feminist
perspective on Euripides is what they least need. Providing
the most naive of readers with a feminist perspective on Euripides
is one of the best ways you could devise to close down their thinking
before it's even had a chance to begin to demolish a single one
of their brainless u2018likes'. I have trouble believing that an educated
woman coming from a French academic background like your own believes
there is a feminist perspective on Euripides that isn't simply
foolishness. Have you really been edified in so short a time, or
is this just old-fashioned careerism grounded right now in the fear
of one's feminist colleagues? Because if it is just careerism, it's
fine with me. It's human and I understand. But if it's an intellectual
commitments to this idiocy, then I am mystified, because you are
not an idiot. Because you know better. Because in France surely
nobody from Ecole Normale would dream of taking this stuff
seriously. Or would they? To read two plays like Hippolytus and
Alcestis, then to listen to a week of classroom discussion on each,
then to have nothing to say about either of them other than that
they are u2018degrading to women,' isn't a u2018perspective,' for Christ's
sake – it's mouthwash. It's just the latest mouthwash."

At
one point in this riveting exchange, Roux responds in the student's
defense that "some of our students develop irritating personal
mannerisms when they are confronting fossilized pedagogy."
The entire exchange – watching Silk give this woman the what
for – is worth the price of the book. As for Roux, she vows
to destroy him, and her appalling calumnies eventually go way beyond even what
her colleagues dreamed up.

One
of the characters whom Roth has inhabited explains why the racist
label itself is so deadly. Unlike a normal accusation of wrongdoing,
it doesn't just apply to a single incident. It is designed to tarnish
an entire career. If you are deemed a racist, you must have been
one forever; your racism has been unearthed and revealed, not merely spotted in a single incident. Neither is there any hope of rehabilitating you. Your
whole life, your whole existence, is stained. It is a Maoist tactic
to dehumanize and destroy your opponents: exactly the same tactic
the left once decried when a few politicos in the 1950s dared pin
the label of communist on, well, members of the Communist Party. And at least the red baiters of old accepted the burden of providing evidence. Even then, they were constantly under fire; today’s witch hunters enjoy an unquestioned right to destroy.

Roth's
attack on the academic culture of left-puritanism is expanded in
the final pages of the volume in the voice of a older, educated
black woman who will have nothing whatever to do with the new victimology.
"In my parent's day and well into yours and mine, it used to
be the person who fell short. Now it's the discipline. Reading the
classics is too difficult, therefore it's the classics that are
to blame. Today the student asserts his incapacity as a privilege.
I can't learn it, so there is something wrong with it." She
goes on to attack Black History Month, urban renewal, detractors of the Constitution, the welfare state, crime, and the collapse of schools. A tour de force.

In
the end, Roth's story emerges as a deft but deadly attack on what
has become of the university. But he also treats the story of Coleman
Silk as a metaphor for what has become of the entire political system,
run by official victims who slay and consume those who dare bring
into question their absolute power. A very effective and compelling
read.

June
7, 2000

Jeffrey
Tucker

is editor of The
Free Market
, a publication of the Mises
Institute
.

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