Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
“What? What was controversial?”
“It may not have been the words, per se. But your free speech created controversy.”
“Therefore it was controversial,” Luiz said.
From Nevergreen by Andrew Pessin.
7 years ago, Professor Andrew Pessin, a respected teacher of religion and philosophy at Connecticut College, criticized Hamas. Back then, cancel culture wasn’t the familiar buzzword that it is now, but when the local Students for Justice in Palestine affiliate and the college paper came after him, the college leadership sided with the mob and against their own professor.
Front Page Magazine took on the story back then, exposing the radical hate of the mob’s leaders. In the years that have passed, Pessin’s experiences have been replicated on campuses across the country. Social media mobs have spread beyond the campus, coming for ordinary people with the misfortune to appear on some social justice Twitter influencer’s radar.
And college campuses have only gotten crazier and more dangerous in the last 7 years.
Now, Andrew Pessin is back with Nevergreen. Though none of the events of the novel reproduce his own encounter with campus cancel culture (that would be life, not art), and there is no Nevergreen College (although there is an Evergreen College which was the epicenter of one of the worst radical campus meltdowns), Pessin’s novel distills the madness that has taken over campuses across the country in a still of literary satire that is all the more devastating because it’s so disarming.
There are the “atheists in the ‘Be Grateful God is Dead Club'” and a character is described as wearing “the official t-shirt of the campus tea shop, Chai Guevara, featuring the iconic image of the revolutionary leader sipping a mug of chai itself emblazoned with the Chai Guevara logo”.
A professor named “Peace” teaches conflict studies while making threats, and the students campaign for a wheelchair ramp for the high diving board.
“‘It’s for the principle, the principle of inclusion,” the earnest young woman explained when J. asked whether any wheelchair-bound person were likely to actually use the diving board.”
At Nevergreen College, 1984’s Two-Minutes-Hate is countered with an “official Two Minutes of Hate-Hate later this afternoon”. And Nevergreen’s protagonist J becomes its target.
“To help us prepare for our collective two minutes of hating hate, our Two-Minute Hate-Hate,” Corrie said solemnly, having memorized this part, “indeed to help us focus our energy on the hate we must hate, I present to you, my dear fellow haters of hate, the face of hate.”
“There was J.’s face.”
That’s an experience so many of the victims of cancel culture have had when their name suddenly trends on Twitter while a social media mob gleefully begins its deranged orgy.
“‘Let our hatred of hate begin!’” the Resistance exclaimed through her and the crowd broke into angry, furious, terrifying roars.”
After Pessin’s experiences with cancel culture, he might have been expected to come back with a jeremiad, but Nevergreen is all the more devastating because it refuses to take his tormentors seriously. Cancel culture’s perpetrators are evil and capable of doing a great deal of damage, but Pessin never dignifies them as intellectually serious opponents but reduces them to clowns in a farce whose disorders, personal, intellectual, and moral have tangled their minds in knots.
And looking back at the scenes from the real-life Evergreen College, not to mention the long history of radical revolutions, shows there is quite a bit of truth in Nevergreen’s sketches.
At the heart of Nevergreen is an inciting incident. But in this campus satire, the incident is imaginary. Pessin’s protagonist, a visiting academic, delivers a lecture that no one attends, only to be accused of some unspecified offense against political correctness that can never be voiced. Pessin’s J, like his counterpart, Joseph. K, in Kafka’s The Trial, struggles to prove his innocence without ever being told what he’s accused of because innocence is impossible.
As J descends into the madness of Nevergreen College’s campus politics, he comes to realize that the offense only needs to exist in the minds of his accusers. That’s an experience Pessin no doubt had after spending a year being pilloried for insensitively “dehumanizing” Hamas. His college’s real-life paper at the time claimed that comparing Hamas to a dog was “particularly damaging within the culture of Islam, which has a potent conceptualization of dogs.”
Fiction is hard-pressed under such conditions of everyday insanity to keep pace with life.
In the fictional halls of Nevergreen where “too much education actually diminishes knowledge” so that “the teaching here is done, as much as possible, by the students”, the imaginary offense is only the pretext for another of the purges to which a radicalized student body that doesn’t actually learn anything except how to be angry and offended dedicates all of its time to.
“We are enraged, and numb. There are dangerous forces there, right there in your home, in your heart, on your sacred ground. If you do not stamp out the hate within, then you become that hate. You must resist that hate. You must hate that hate. And you must hate it now,” the entry in Nevergreen’s college paper declares while signaling that another purge has begun.
Like South Park’s Let’s Make Bullying Kill Itself, fighting hate is really about hating others.
Nevergreen College’s self-consciously non-hierarchical faculty and its cheerful use of ‘Friend’ as a form of address are camouflage like a snake’s scales or the bright colors of a venus flytrap. Underneath the cheerful progressivism and trendy educational theories is a snake pit of malice. By entering its precincts, J has fallen prey to its radical moral and intellectual disorders.
Nevergreen draws on Kafka, but just as much on a variety of classic dystopian novels about totalitarianism from 1984 to Brave New World, and modern classics like I Am Charlotte Simmons and The Finkler Question. But it applies these tools to a breaking news setting whose painful reality is everywhere. What happens when truth is stranger than fiction?
No modern campus is quite as insane as Nevergreen College, but Pessin’s novel isn’t just a sendup of the modern hothouses of hatred (as worthwhile as that might be), rather it gets at the heart of the dysfunction of the modern campus with teachers who are too afraid to teach and students just as afraid to let go of their egotistical narcissism long enough to actually learn.
What happens when the faculty and students of a college, a space for discussing and transmitting ideas, lose confidence in the essential academic function of the campus?
And what takes its place?
While we used to scoff at colleges that charged tens of thousands of dollars to teach students courses on tree climbing, queer musicology, and feminist pottery, what filled the vacuum of the western canon was growing frustration and malice directed toward political ends.
And what used to be true of the college campus has become all too true of our society.
Nevergreen shows what happens when the keepers of the intellectual flame abandon their fidelity to truth and integrity and replace them with trendy buzzwords and their own self-serving jargon masquerading as serious learning. The teachers, who know that they are frauds, become afraid of their students, and the students, robbed of any rigorous intellectual and moral structure, hold them in deserved contempt, and pursue every possible extreme. Faculty members lead their own revolutions against any remaining ideas predating them that anyone still dares to teach on campuses only to eventually fall victim to the student revolutionaries.
The microscopic French revolutions playing out on campuses with a thousand social media Robespierres who realize too late that Madame Guillotine eventually comes for everyone have gone national and global. Not long after Pessin’s purge, college protests and cancel culture took off at Mizzou and Evergreen College. The tactics used there provided the basis for the national riots and political purges during the Black Lives Matter riots. A single viral video or Facebook comment was enough to destroy anyone’s life. Evergreen or Nevergreen was everywhere.
And it still is.
What can we do about it?
There may be no single answer. But Nevergreen offers its own answer. We can laugh at it.
Nevergreen by Andrew Pessin is available now. Until it’s banned.
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