E-Pluribus | January 24, 2024
Reports of DEI's decline at Harvard may be greatly exaggerated; cancel culture turns 10; and dealing with homelessness - political homelessness, that is.
A round-up of the latest and best musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Eric Kaufmann: The Harvard DEI complex is stronger than ever
Critics of DEI in higher education celebrated Claudine Gay’s removal as president of Harvard, but Eric Kaufmann writing at UnHerd doesn’t believe there’s any reason for optimism. Kaufmann cautions that forcing schools to rebrand their illiberalism is no victory for free speech.
[Claudine] Gay’s ouster [as Harvard’s president] emboldened a set of optimists who desperately want to believe that elite institutions can reform themselves, ditching progressive illiberalism and its totalising “oppressor-oppressed” framework. They see corporations slashing DEI budgets, a consumer backlash against the likes of Target, Disney and Bud Light, a drop in cancellations of professors for wrongspeak, editorials in mainstream Left outlets such as the New York Times and CNN, and bipartisan disgust at the antics of pro-Palestinian campus activists.
Time for a reality check. Instead of falling over itself to advance free speech and political neutrality, the DEI complex on campus is shape-shifting, hiding affirmative action under misleading euphemisms here, bolting on some anti-antisemitism there. In response to the congressional hearings and PR debacle, Liz Magill at the University of Pennsylvania said the university had been too protective of speech. Illiberalism, not free speech, is the direction of travel.
Donors are not the anti-woke heroes some believe them to be. They have punished elite universities for alleged antisemitism rather than their poor record on freedom, with Harvard reputed to have lost $1 billion on the back of the debacle. For instance, in response to a pro-Palestine event that took place before the Hamas attack, donors pressured Penn to amend its constitution to tighten the definition of hate speech, abridging free speech. The lesson for a prudent college seeking to triangulate between its DEI and Jewish constituencies is to simply upgrade the status of antisemitism within its DEI apparatus. Yet a broad definition of “hate speech” toward Jews is likely to buttress the idea that emotional safety trumps free expression. “They reinforced cancel culture,” warns Penn historian Jonathan Zimmerman. “There’s going to be yet more fear and anxiety over what you can say.”
Read the whole thing.
Greg Lukianoff & Rikki Schlott: Looking Back on a Decade of Cancel Culture
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the origin of cancel culture, Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott ballpark its age at about a decade. The two authors have a new book out and adapted a portion of it for Quillette.
It’s impossible to do justice in one essay to just how much free speech on campus has eroded over the last decade. By way of example, here are three episodes from just one year—2020—that many readers may not even know about.
UCLA management professor Gordon Klein was suspended for an email he sent, indicating that he wouldn’t change how exams were graded for black students in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. A petition, signed by more than 21,000 people, demanded Klein’s termination on the basis of his “extremely insensitive, dismissive, and woefully racist response to his students’ request for empathy and compassion during a time of civil unrest.” In a message to the UCLA community, the dean of the Anderson School of Management characterized Klein as having “a disregard for our core principles,” and called Klein’s email an “abuse of power.”
University of Southern California business professor Greg Patton was pressured to step down from teaching a course after he explained to his students that people in China use the filler word nega much like English speakers use the exclamation um. Because the word sounds similar to a slur, students reported him to the administration, and the school launched an investigation.
Jon Zubieta, a veteran chemistry professor, was put on leave by Syracuse University for writing, “Wuhan Flu or Chinese Communist Party Virus” on a course syllabus—something he intended as a joke about political correctness.
[. . .]
[M]any professors actively cheer on this degradation of free-speech norms on their campuses, even as their colleagues find themselves on the cancel-culture chopping block.
How do these professors reconcile their desire to protect their own academic freedom with a desire to deny free speech to their colleagues? One common method is to claim that freedom of speech and academic freedom are completely distinct concepts. Author and legal theorist Stanley Fish argued as much in his 2019 book, The First: How to Think About Hate Speech, Campus Speech, Religious Speech, Fake News, Post-Truth, and Donald Trump, in which he wrote that “free speech is not an academic value,” and even argued that research and free speech are not “even distantly related.”
[. . .]
[A]lthough campus speech codes have been summarily defeated in court, by 2009, 74% of America’s top 346 colleges had extremely restrictive codes. Only eight of these colleges had none at all.
Meanwhile, student orientations are infused with political programming, as one of us, Rikki, saw firsthand when starting at New York University (NYU) in 2018. In July of 2021, as a then-junior, she recounted the experience of being a new student in one of her first op-eds for the New York Post, titled “Freedom of Speech Is Endangered on College Campuses—and I’m Fighting Back”:
Read it all.
Sam Kahn: A Guide for the Politically Homeless
While there are “proud Democrats” and “proud Republicans,” a growing segment of the population consists of “proud” neithers. What’s a voter to do when no major political party represents their views? At Persuasion, Sam Kahn says the politically homeless must make their views more widely known if a “new political consensus” is to take shape.
There seem to be two words in the air at the moment, that keep popping up in articles and finding their way into American political discourse. One is “sleepwalking.”
[. . .]
The other word of the moment is “homelessness”—and that seems to cover the state of mind of many of those voters. As of early 2023, 49% of American voters identified as “independent”—nearly double the number who identified themselves with either major party and an increase of 18 points from 2004. That’s, of course, without any viable third-party candidate or independent movement having emerged on the scene.
What that means is that some vast number of Americans find themselves suspended between these two poles—sleepwalking all the way to the voting booth in November and finding themselves with no real outlet to express their sense of political homelessness.
[. . .]
For those who find themselves “homeless”—no longer quite speaking the language of what is still anachronistically considered the “political center”—there’s an opportunity to consider what the next political turn will look like. Iconoclastic, free-wheeling thinkers like heterodox academic Michael Lind have put together some interesting propositions—a kind of renewed New Deal, with a government that is dedicated to addressing class inequities but also is willing to adopt the sort of nationally-tinged, somewhat protectionist language that Democrats have long eschewed. The point here isn’t whether you agree with this approach or not, but that a “scrambling” is already well underway, that there will soon be an opportunity to shuffle the decks of the standard-issue political positions, and the ideas that align most with “the public” will tend to win out.
From my vantage-point, these are the issues that seem to be up for grabs—that really matter to people and that can be slotted one way or another into some new political consensus:
Big Tech. . .
Free speech. . .
Inequality. . .
This election is likely to be about none of those things. It will turn on either Joe Biden’s age or Donald Trump’s abundant character failings. And, likely, most of us (even the politically homeless) will stick to our party lines and sleepwalk through the year. But the “great scrambling” is happening and the “homeless” must sooner or later articulate some viable political position. At the very least, it’s an interesting time to think through these questions. As Gurri puts it, “the public” is a new “dispensation striving to become manifest.” Whatever the ideas are that prevail, they will need to take that new sensibility into account.
Read it all here.
Note: Yesterday’s original Pluribus essay Editing Joe Biden included an error, since corrected. Given that the subject of the essay is transparency, it seems appropriate to clearly note the correction for newsletter readers who might have missed it.
Around Twitter (X)
Oliver Traldi updates William F. Buckley:
And finally, via Steve McGuire, the provost at Cornell University reminds educators that their primary job is to educate: