Notes & Comments March 2023
Leftist autophagy, Telluride edition
On the convolutions of anti-racism.
It is a common if not quite invariable feature of revolutionary movements to breed factions and, among those factions, that the more rabid elements win out over the more moderate. In the French Revolution, the Girondins opposed monarchy, just as the more radical Montagnards did. But the Girondins also mostly eschewed violence. They were cast aside and many were executed in 1793 when the Montagnards gained ascendency and embarked on the Reign of Terror that in turn consumed its main architects, Robespierre and Saint-Just, in 1794.
Something similar unfolded during and after the Russian Revolution between the (relatively speaking) moderate Mensheviks and Lenin’s Bolsheviks. They started out side by side as prominent anti-tsarist agitators. Then the Bolsheviks consolidated power and purged the Mensheviks, many of whom were executed. We saw something similar among the Nazis. In 1934, in an episode called the Night of the Long Knives, Ernst Röhm and his brutal, street-fighting Brownshirts were massacred by the even more brutal Blackshirts under the direction of Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich.
This pattern often repeats itself in the economy of intellectual as well as partisan politics. We were reminded of this when we came across “A Black Professor Trapped in Anti-Racist Hell,” a much-noticed essay published last month in the online journal Compact. It was written by Vincent Lloyd, a professor of theology (what he has called “Black Theology” or “Political Theology”) and the director of Africana Studies at Villanova University, a Roman Catholic institution just northwest of Philadelphia.
Lloyd’s essay is an account of his teaching—and, as it transpired, his not teaching—a summer class at the Telluride Association Summer Seminars at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The association was started by L. L. Nunn, an industrialist from Telluride, Colorado, in 1910. Branches of the association were founded at various places across the United States. Currently, houses exist at Cornell and the University of Michigan.
At first focused chiefly on engineering, the association soon expanded to include other subjects, among them the humanities. Originally, its residents were composed of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. The program is both highly selective and ideologically diverse. At Cornell, residents have included conservative scholars such as Allan Bloom and Paul Wolfowitz as well as the feminist “queer theorist” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (author of the infamous “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”) and the Derrida disciple Gayatri Spivak. The association provides scholarships and housing in order, in the words of one historian, “to grant [residents] release from all material concern, a background of culture, the responsibility of managing their own household, and the opportunity to live and learn from resident faculty members and eminent visitors [to the university].”
In 1954, the association inaugurated the Telluride Association Summer Program, an intensive six-week course for a small group of rising high-school seniors from around the world. Its mission is to provide “free educational programs emphasizing intellectual curiosity, democratic self-governance, and social responsibility.” One distinguished alumnus we know described his time there as the most thrilling educational experience of his career. This program, too, is highly selective. Until recently, anyway, its members represented the intellectual crème de la crème; Lloyd reports that only about 3 percent of applicants are admitted. His essay for Compact is about his experience teaching a seminar on “Race and the Limits of Law in America” to twelve students in the 2022 summer program.
He’d taught it before, in 2014. That time, the students started cheerful and enthusiastic, and they stayed that way. This time, although they began with the effervescence and cheerfulness he remembered, all that soon evaporated, like dew off a morning rose. At week four, he confronted the class. “Now, their faces were cold, their eyes down. Since the first week, I had not spotted one smile. Their number was reduced by two: The previous week, they had voted two classmates out of the house. And I was next.”
Each student read from a prepared statement about how the seminar perpetuated anti-black violence in its content and form, how the black students had been harmed, how I was guilty of countless microaggressions, including through my body language, and how students didn’t feel safe because I didn’t immediately correct views that failed to treat anti-blackness as the cause of all the world’s ills.
What happened? Lloyd lays much of the blame for the “implosion” of his seminar at the feet of a college teaching-assistant he calls “Keisha.” She certainly does seem to have been a stirrer-up of strife. Among other things, she carefully inculcated the idea that an actionable “harm” was “anything that makes you feel not quite right.” That is, she actively encouraged that species of permanently aggrieved hypersensitivity that has transformed so many college campuses into dens of racial and sexual dysphoria.
The results were predictable. When an Asian American student cited statistics showing that about 60 percent of those incarcerated are white, black students objected that they were “harmed.” Why? Because “they had learned, in one of their workshops, that objective facts are a tool of white supremacy. Outside of the seminar, I was told, the black students had to devote a great deal of time to making right the harm that was inflicted on them by hearing prison statistics that were not about blacks.”
Lloyd seemed surprised, even shocked by this. But what did he expect? After all, Telluride had tasked “Keisha” and the other teaching assistant with conducting “anti-racism workshops to fill the afternoons.” There were, he explained, “workshops on white supremacy, on privilege, on African independence movements, on the thought and activism of Angela Davis, and more, all of which followed an initial, day-long workshop on ‘transformative justice.’”
All of that, apparently, was according to script. But Lloyd—the author of such titles as Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination and Religion of the Field Negro: On Black Secularism and Black Theology—was shocked, shocked to discover that the teaching assistants were foisting these ideas on their students “crudely,” “conveying certain dogmatic assertions.”
From the initial “transformative-justice” workshop, students learned to snap their fingers when they agreed with what a classmate was saying. This practice immediately entered the seminar and was weaponized. One student would try out a controversial (or just unusual) view. Silence. Then another student would repeat a piece of anti-racist dogma, and the room would be filled with the click-clack of snapping fingers.
There is a curious stereoscopic quality to Lloyd’s essay. In tone, it is decorous and humanistic in the old sense. Lloyd appears as a Mr. Chips–like teacher who notes that the seminar form “requires patience.” “Day by day,” he writes, “one intervention builds on another, as one student notices what another student overlooked, and as the professor guides the discussion toward the most important questions.” Moreover, this Socratic practice is “grounded in a text: Specific words, phrases, arguments, and images from a text offer essential friction for conversation, holding seminar participants accountable to something concrete. The instructor gently—ideally, almost invisibly—guides discussion toward what matters.”
It sounds very nice, doesn’t it? Just like college seminars of yore. But cutting sharply against all this gentleness and respect and seriousness is the substance of Lloyd’s class, which seems to have been governed by a fixation on racial redress, with four whole weeks dedicated to exploring “anti-blackness” and its attendant harms.
Some observers, reading Lloyd’s essay, wonder whether he had been “red-pilled,” whether, like that character from the 1999 film The Matrix, his unpleasant experience had wrought in him a clarifying disillusionment and caused him to cross over to the Right. We doubt it. At one point, he raises the possibility that an obsession with race—what he calls “centering blackness”—has precipitated “a step too far, a step into incoherence—or worse.” But he concludes mournfully that “Belief in democracy had authorized abuse, and there was no way out.”
To some extent, we believe, the collapse of Lloyd’s seminar (and apparently other seminars that summer suffered similar deformations) was due to the Telluride administration. In terms of logistics, they declined to intervene when, first, two Asian American students were expelled from the seminar and then Lloyd was petitioned by the students to deliver the class content in the form of lectures and not as a seminar at all. Even worse, the students demanded that Lloyd correct “any of them who questioned [anti-blackness] orthodoxy.” But the rot goes much deeper. Back in 2014, Lloyd might have pursued that same sort of all-race-all-the-time rhetoric he was purveying in 2022. But back then the serious intellectual traditions of Telluride would have provided a moderating context and structure. In 2021, however, taking advantage of a covid-enforced hiatus in programming, Telluride embraced wokeness.
In a letter to its alumni, Telluride announced the “exciting news” that “the murder of George Floyd and subsequent growth of the Black Lives Matter movement” had prompted them to address “longstanding concerns” about how their activities “reinforce and perpetuate white supremacy and anti-Black racism.” Their high-school program, they said, “had become increasingly elitist” and remote from its central mission of promoting “critical thinking and democratic community.” In response, Telluride went full Montagnardian. They decapitated their high-school program, scrapping the traditional seminars and substituting two new offerings: Critical Black Studies and Anti-Oppressive Studies.
In essence, they committed suicide, hopping into the destructive woke tumbril of racialist obsession. Instead of coaxing their young charges out of the shells of their youth and intellectual provincialism, they sealed them into a moral prison whose only currency was the unearned entitlement of perpetual grievance and astringent intolerance. It is a missed opportunity, to be sure, as well as a shocking dereliction of intellectual and pedagogical stewardship.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 7, on page 1
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