Notes & Comments May 2022
Wanting it both ways
On free speech in universities.
The 1936 constitution of the Soviet Union was a noble-sounding document. It guaranteed universal suffrage, recognized a long list of human rights including the right to work, the right to enjoy rest and leisure, and the right to housing and health care, and provided for old-age benefits. Article 125 of the constitution also guaranteed free speech, a free press, and the right to assemble peacefully. Unfortunately, those guarantees were neutered by a supervening law that subjected those activities to review by a censor. Free speech is guaranteed, Comrade, just so long as you say what we like.
We wonder if Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, is a student of Soviet history. He certainly seems to have mastered the dialectical technique of pretending to guarantee free speech while actually taking it away. As we noted in this space in November 2020, Eisgruber has behaved particularly badly with respect to Joshua T. Katz, one of the most distinguished scholars in Princeton’s classics department, for many years one of the university’s most popular teachers, and, we are proud to say, a Visiting Critic for The New Criterion for the 2022–23 season. Katz’s tort was to have written an article for the online magazine Quillette in which he criticized a proposal to guarantee teachers “of color” more sabbatical time and institutional support than their pale-faced colleagues. If implemented, Katz noted, the proposal “would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate.” Yes, it would.
But for making that observation, and for criticizing an obnoxious activist organization called the “Black Justice League” (then and now defunct), Katz was transformed overnight into a pariah. Eisgruber himself condemned Katz’s statements, and one of the president’s minions said darkly that the university would be “looking into the matter.” A university-sanctioned internet gallery called “To Be Known and Heard,” viewing of which is mandatory for all incoming students, dilates on Princeton’s supposedly racist past and singles out Katz for pointed abuse. A handful of faculty rallied to Katz’s defense, but Michele Minter, who glories in the title “Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity” (yes, really), ruled that the gallery was not an official Princeton production (though it appears on the university website and bears the copyright of the board of trustees) and that Katz’s rights had not been violated because he had not been vilified on account of some “protected characteristic,” e.g., race, creed, color, or sex.
It is a surreal situation, redeemed in part by the energetic defense of free speech mounted by a recently formed group of Princeton alumni called Princetonians for Free Speech. In an ongoing series of articles, its founders, Edward L. Yingling and Stuart Taylor Jr., have dissected the whole sorry saga of Princeton’s Soviet-style double-think about free speech. It’s hard to predict what effect, if any, their efforts will have. But we are happy to see that Katz’s case is attracting some of the attention it deserves. In a gimlet-eyed article published in mid-April in Tablet, Katz’s colleague Sergiu Klainerman, a distinguished mathematician, gets to the heart of the issue. Christopher Eisgruber wants to champion free speech. He also wants to champion “social justice,” which is inimical to free speech. Joshua T. Katz revealed the contradiction. For this, Klainerman points out, Katz must be “punished as an example to us all not to interfere with the university’s plans to remake itself as an ideological factory for the production of ‘anti-racist social justice.’ ” It’s the same throughout the educational establishment. Eventually, the contradiction—or perhaps it’s only the hypocrisy—of mouthing support for free speech while prostrating in obeisance to the social-justice juggernaut will bring down the entire decaying edifice. That’s the good news. The bad news is that “eventually” can be a very long time indeed.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 9, on page 1
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