Spooks and Speech Controls

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.