Now for a day-brightener from the music world. It involves Timothy L. Jackson, a professor of music theory at the University of North Texas, and Philip Ewell, a professor of music theory at the City University in New York. At first glance, the case seems like an obscure academic spat. Jackson is the founder and editor of a specialist periodical called the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, named for the influential Austrian-Jewish music theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868–1935). Ewell is a race-obsessed academic. In 2019, in an essay for Music Theory Online, Ewell delivered a blistering attack on the “whiteness” of music theory, arguing that the discipline needed to be “deframed and reframed” and thereby emancipated from its “white racial frame.” The essay is almost a caricature of the genre, full of admiring citations of Ibram X. Kendi and other professional racialist charlatans.
Exhibit A in Ewell’s rogues’ gallery was Schenker, whom he lambasted as a Nazi-loving racist and an anti-Semite (“an ardent racist and German nationalist”) who promoted white supremacy. Ewell pointedly included Schenker’s disciples in his indictment.
Jackson responded to Ewell in a special issue of his journal. As a result, he, too, was branded as a racist and an anti-Semite. He was denounced in a student-circulated petition and in an open letter signed by music faculty at unt, as well as in another letter signed by musicologists from other institutions. unt, feeling the heat, suspended the publication of Jackson’s journal and opened an investigation into the charges of racism and unprofessional behavior. Overnight, Jackson was transformed into a pariah, a development that more and more independent-minded academics will know about firsthand.
Jackson did not take the assault lying down. He sued the unt regents as well as those colleagues who had defamed him. The regents argued that they could not be sued personally because they had “sovereign immunity.” A district court disagreed, handing Jackson a preliminary victory. The regents appealed. But just a few weeks ago, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found for Jackson on all counts. The decision will have reverberations throughout academia as regents and board members, administrators, and faculty come to realize that defaming people for expressing an opinion with which they disagree can have legal and probably financial consequences.
Congratulations to Professor Jackson. His victory was years in coming, and although this is only the end of the first chapter of his legal battle, his success thus far is a reaffirmation of free and open debate and a protection against that malicious vilification we have come to sum up with the word “canceled.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 3, on page 3
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