Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Evergreen State Case: Orwell Was an Optimist

Evergreen State College in Washington has been around since Curmie was in junior high, and it does (or at least did, until recently) indeed retain something of the savor of the 1960s. Indeed, although I’ve always known it was Evergreen State, I don’t think I really consciously made the connection that it was Evergreen State; I’ve always sort of thought of it as a private school, because to my way of thinking it would be impossible for such a college, described by one of its most famous alumni, Matt Groening, as “a hippie college, with no grades or required classes, that drew every weirdo in the Northwest,” to be otherwise.

By this, I do not mean to denigrate the school or all its people. The two Evergreen alums I’ve known have both been women of considerable intellect and considerable social conscience (one of them remarkably so in both criteria). And certainly a smallish college (a little over 4000 undergrads) which could give us not only Groening, but also the likes of Macklemore, John Wozniak, and Michael Richards, would seem to be doing something right, at least in terms of training artists. But perhaps the person who most encapsulates the world’s perception of Evergreen students is one who didn’t live to receive her degree: Rachel Corrie’s activism—some would say heroism—led to her being crushed to death by an armored bulldozer in the Gaza strip as she attempted to defend Palestinian homes from destruction by the Israeli military.

In other words, Curmie has a little trouble envisioning Evergreen as a place at which racist or sexist ideologies could possibly thrive. But that would be actual racist or sexist (or homophobic or transphobic or…) attitudes, not to be confused with something some entitled little brat might construe as a “micro-aggression,” or whatever this week’s jargon may be. Anyway, there’s a tradition there called “Day of Absence,” a title derived from Douglas Turner Ward’s excellent one-act play of the same name. [Side note: Curmie worked on a production of that play sometime in the mid ‘70s. i.e., about the time the tradition started at Evergreen.] At Evergreen, as in Ward’s play, all the African-Americans in a community disappear, leaving the remaining whites to contemplate what is lost. Thus, the custom was for all the African-Americans to vacate the Evergreen campus on a designated day in the spring semester.

Dr. Bret Weinstein:
At the center of the brouhaha
That is, until this year, when someone came up with the idea that the African-Americans would stay and the whites would be forced to leave. Precisely one faculty member, as far as Curmie can determine, had the necessary sense and courage to call out this inanity: Bret Weinstein, a biologist. (Note: he has been publicly supported, a couple of weeks after the fact, by one other Evergreen faculty member, veterinarian Mike Paros, who said “Most of the country at least either supports what Bret Weinstein did, or is concerned about Evergreen as a college where free inquiry can occur.” Dr. Paros seems to have a flair for understatement.)

Professor Weinstein formally protested the decision to re-structure the Day of Absence in a March 15 letter to Rashida Love, the school’s Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services. (Seriously, where do they get these titles… and how many First Peoples students are there at Evergreen to legitimize not merely a full-time staff position but indeed—apparently—an entire office?)

He informed Ms. Love of his intention to remain on campus on the Day of Absence, writing:
There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away. The first instance is a forceful call to consciousness. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.
Later, in a lengthy podcast interview with Joe Rogan, Weinstein added, “as a person, as somebody devoted to the gains of the civil rights movement, and also I should probably say as a Jew, when people start telling me where I can and cannot be, it rings alarm bells.” New York Times editorialist Bari Weiss sums up the situation deftly:
Reasonable people can debate whether or not social experiments like a Day of Absence are enlightening. Perhaps there’s a case to be made that a white-free day could be a useful way to highlight the lack of racial diversity, particularly at a proudly progressive school like Evergreen. Yet reasonable debate has made itself absent at Evergreen.
Weinstein did go to campus on the Day of Absence, which he describes as “mostly uneventful.” Predictably (alas), although it seemed to surprise Professor Weinstein himself, after the event per se, a gaggle of students surrounded him in the hallway outside his classroom, screaming profanity, refusing to listen, and demanding an apology and/or his resignation. Weinstein describes being characterized as a racist as “ironic,” and “a strategic mistake” by his detractors.

Curmie had been under the impression that the protest followed hard on the heels of the Day of Absence. This was not the case, as former Evergreen Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Zimmerman points out in an essay in the Huffington Post. Not only was there a two-month gap between Weinstein’s letter and the protest, but over a month had passed between the actual Day of Absence and the brouhaha. Mr. Zimmerman also provides some important back-story details, which Curmie encourages you to read. By the way, it’s almost as if all that postmodern stuff about history occurring in the interstices between events might just have some validity. (Side note: Dr. Weinstein himself, for all his articulateness and sensibility, still has the arrogance of the natural scientist that the arts, humanities, and social sciences are somehow inferior because, he seems to believe, truth manifests only in objectively verifiable ways. Curmie admires his stance against thought control, but isn’t so sure he’d want him as a colleague.) 

This appears to be the new face of life at Evergreen State College.
The day after the hallway confrontation, Weinstein received a phone call from the police, warning him not to come to campus, as students were stopping and searching cars; the implication was that had Weinstein come to campus, he may have been dragged out of his car and… well, who knows? 

And then, Evergreen president George Bridges, who apparently has both the brains and the backbone of overcooked capellini, told the police to stand down (!), effectively leaving gangs of angry and self-entitled students to harass and intimidate whomever they chose, including Weinstein’s students. Weinstein quite legitimately feared for his safety, and entire campus was shut down for the following two days. The students also claim to have feared for their lives immediately after they tried to bully the professor, which makes them paranoid as well as moronic and hypocritical.

Meanwhile, President Bridges publicly declared the student protesters to be “courageous,” and capitulated to virtually all of a series of student demands (thankfully, not the one that Prof. Weinstein be fired), ranging from a promise not to file charges against the student protesters to meekly agreeing not to gesture (at all!) while talking to the protesters, to excusing protesters from doing their homework, to “an expanded equity and multicultural center” (whatever the hell that means) to “mandatory sensitivity and cultural competency training for faculty, staff, administrators, and student employees.” Nope, that doesn’t sound the least bit Stalinist. Nope.

The consensus seems to be that President Bridges was trying to keep the incident out of the press. That strategy worked briefly, but Dr. Weinstein then did something unthinkable for a progressive intellectual: he went on the Tucker Carlson show on Fox News. Here’s the thing: Tucker Carlson is one of a raft-load of conservative pundits (e.g., Bill O’Reilly, Laura Ingraham, Monica Crowley, even Glenn Beck) who found that they’d become more famous and could demand higher salaries from Fox News if they abandoned the sense and intellect they had previously demonstrated and instead pandered to prejudices and paranoias of the Bubbas who make up the majority of that network’s viewership. In other words, Tucker Carlson is not a moron, but he plays one on TV.

The latter gives him a pulpit; the former means that when there really is a story, he knows he doesn’t need to embellish it. The scary thing is that in his description of the events at Evergreen resembling “Phnom Penh in 1975,” he has a point. Yes, it’s an exaggeration, but there’s a difference between hyperbole and falsehood, and this stays clearly in the former camp. And Carlson quite reasonably wonders how and why Dr. Bridges is “allowing a mob to threaten one of his professors.” The signature quotation of the six-minute or so segment, however, goes to Weinstein: “I’m troubled by what this implies about the current state of the left.” Carlson’s response, “Ya think?” was simultaneously gratuitous and apt.

Needless to say, the right-wing press lapped this story up, and—in this case—rightly so. One of the better pieces was a YouTube post by “Roaming Millennial.” It’s posted under the header “Evergreen’s Bigot Professor vs. Brave Students!” Shall we say the title suggests a dissonance between text and subtext? Our hostess sums things up pretty well:
I don’t know about everyone watching this, but I for one am pretty tired of seeing footage of student mobs harassing professors for espousing reasonable and rational viewpoints…. Evergreen College has essentially turned into Lord of the Flies, with students running wild. 
She describes President Bridges as “a massive cuck.”  This is not a term Curmie would use… but only because he’s the wrong generation to have that expression as part of his active vocabulary.  Roaming Millennial adds:
My advice to these students is that if you don’t want footage of you acting like an insufferable douchebag floating around on the internet, you shouldn’t have been acting like an insufferable douchebag…. The fact that the president of the college is actually giving in to their demands is only going to encourage this type of behavior. When a child throws a tantrum because he‘s not getting his way, you don’t just give in to him; you set boundaries, and that’s what needs to happen to these students.
There’s more, but the piece veers off into a rather trite indictment of liberalism in general. That’s where the conclusion doesn’t necessarily flow from the evidence adduced. But as regards this specific incident, yeah, she’s absolutely right.

Of course, the Evergreen saga still had three more chapters (at least). First, there was the announcement by the college that Dr. Weinstein had returned to campus and was teaching again. (Nothing to see here; move along.) Trouble is, well, he hadn’t. Or at least that’s his claim, and he ought to know.

Secondly, a gaggle of Evergreen faculty decided that the problems were all of Weinstein’s making, claiming he was “endangering students.” “HOW?” is a question they do not seem prepared to answer. These 71 co-signers (terrifyingly, that’s nearly a third of the faculty) further vowed to capitulate to even more student demands, and denied that the protesters were in any way violent, despite video evidence to the contrary.

Finally (please, God, let it be finally), Evergreen held its graduation ceremony on at a rented baseball field in Tacoma, some 30 miles from the campus in Olympia. Attendees—graduates, faculty, and guests alike—had to pass through metal detectors to enter the space. Just… wow.

OK: a few bullet points to wrap up:
  • Neither Bret Weinstein nor Curmie denies that systemic racism didn’t just evaporate with the election of Barack Obama or something. It’s real, and there might indeed be some vestigial manifestations of it at Evergreen College. But that doesn’t mean that punishing an African-American for committing a violent crime is a racist act. Nothing Curmie has read or heard from Bret Weinstein suggests any racist inclinations.
  • Dr. Weinstein’s progressive credentials are sufficiently obvious to any rational observer that they need not be trotted out and reviewed. Numerous parallels to what’s happening at Evergreen present themselves. Roaming Millennial mentioned Lord of the Flies. Curmie was thinking Animal Farm… or 1984: pick your Orwell. Or, from history: Danton. Or Trotsky. Or…
  • This is not, as some on the right would argue, an example of “PC run amok.” It’s a whole different phenomenon: one which embraces mob mentalities, threats of violence, and the suppression of actual diversity. Dr. Zimmerman is correct in suggesting that the protesters believe, and the college administration pandered to that belief, that “freedom of speech is only for speech with which you agree and aggressively silencing those with whom you disagree is fair game.”
  • The protesters are post-adolescents, caught up in mob mentality and the perception of agency. They’re responsible for their actions, but they’re also still pretty much kids. More problematically, their absurd and potentially dangerous posturing is condoned, enabled, and indeed encouraged by adults who should know better: a good portion of the faculty and by an administration headed by someone who is either an utter idiot or a craven buffoon… or both.
  • Curmie’s father was a college president in more tumultuous times than these: a decade beginning in 1968. I vividly recall one incident, although not the cause (a response to Kent State? Something local like 24-hour visitation?). Anyway, a large group of students had taken over the administration building, and the VPAA showed up literally on our doorstep that evening, obviously in some distress, and handed Dad a list of the students’ demands. Dad took the sheet of paper, folded it up, and put it in his pocket. “Aren’t you going to read them?” queried the VPAA. “I don’t respond to demands,” Dad replied. If they’d like to make them ‘requests,’ I’ll look at them in the morning.”  And then he closed the door. I think it’s safe to say that Curmie’s Dad had a different approach to leadership than Dr. Bridges does.
  • Evergreen is no longer, can no longer be, the “hippie haven” it once was. Its 1969 music festival analog was Woodstock. Now it’s Altamont, known for its anger and violence, and widely regarded as the death of the hippie movement. And that is a great shame.
  • As of right now, Bret Weinstein still has a job. That’s a good thing, although Curmie can’t imagine why anyone would want to work in the snake-pit that is Evergreen State right now. George Bridges also still has a job. That isn’t a good thing. At all.
We close with the perceptive analysis of former VPAA Zimmerman: “Evergreen is not alone in the constellation of institutions of higher education facing these problems. It is, however, a place that has allowed extremists to dominate and discussion to die. Others will do well to learn from the mistakes made on this campus.” Amen to that.


John Burger said...

Great analysis and insight.


Penni Kimmel said...

Thanks, Curmie,

I've written to my alma mater, Bennington, to request that they make an offer of employment to Professor Weinstein before he's snapped up elsewhere. The Bennington students deserve a teacher of that caliber.