In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Aaron Snyder reviews a new book on free speech in higher education that argues that the idea of free speech has been used to protect racists from being punished for their racist ideas. The book is called It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom. The authors — Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth — argue that the academy is full of white supremacists. “Bérubé and Ruth define a ‘white supremacist’ as someone who promotes the idea that Black people are biologically or culturally inferior,” Snyder writes, and that any “professor who consistently advances ‘discredited’ and ‘repugnant’ views about race should be dismissed”:
They identify two principal figures who meet these qualifications: the political-science professor Bruce Gilley (who is Ruth’s colleague at Portland State) and the University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax. Gilley garnered attention for his controversial 2017 essay “The Case for Colonialism.” Wax, meanwhile, is known as a “rhetorical grenade thrower” for her comments about immigration and the academic performance of Black students.
“There is nothing unambiguous about Wax’s racism,” the authors aver. “She expressly says that ‘Anglo-Protestant culture’ is superior to other cultures.” The authors’ evidence consists of two excerpts, largely stripped of context, from a speech that Wax gave at the 2019 National Conservatism conference. The first chapter of It’s Not Free Speech focuses on “context culture” and “the politics of interpretation.” One of the takeaways is that rendering judgments on whether particular utterances are “racist” requires careful consideration of the full context of the remarks, including the intent behind them and the impact they have on an audience. The authors don’t seem to follow their own advice. Without seeking additional information beyond what they have presented, I am not sure how many people would feel qualified to judge whether Wax is a “white supremacist.” I don’t.
The authors refer to “legions of racist professors” and the “entrenched, unshakeable beliefs of the white-supremacist professoriate.” “The problem,” they contend, “is unfathomably larger than any one Bruce Gilley or Amy Wax.” If, indeed, the problem were “unfathomably larger” than the same two individuals they mention ad nauseam, you would expect the authors to provide at least some sense of its scope. But by the end of the book, they have identified a grand total of three professors (Gilley, Wax, and the Indiana University economist Eric Rasmusen) whom they think should be fired because of their “commitment to white supremacism.” With 1.5 million faculty members employed at U.S. colleges and universities, that represents .0002 percent of the professoriate.
The book, Snyder writes, “is so chock-full of unresolved contradictions, gross misrepresentations, and wild, unjustified claims that it ultimately makes you wonder how the manuscript made it into print.”
In other news
The search for toxic books:
Libraries and rare book collections often carry volumes that feature poisons on their pages, from famous murder mysteries to seminal works on toxicology and forensics. The poisons described in these books are merely words on a page, but some books scattered throughout the world are literally poisonous. These toxic books, produced in the 19th century, are bound in vivid cloth colored with a notorious pigment known as emerald green that’s laced with arsenic. Many of them are going unnoticed on shelves and in collections. So Melissa Tedone, the lab head for library materials conservation at the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in Delaware, has launched an effort dubbed the Poison Book Project to locate and catalogue these noxious volumes.
Delightfully unpredictable, Michel de Montaigne seems to follow in his Essays a program of digressive spontaneity. Engaging in a dialogue with writers of antiquity and readers in the present, these essays, carrying titles that correspond only vaguely, if at all, to their fluid substance, are above all a provocative dialogue with himself. Or rather, they offer a conversation, in the original Latin sense of frequentation and keeping company. Montaigne the writer enjoys the close presence of Montaigne the person. In their exchanges, they do their best to avoid smugness and pedantry. The author of the Essays even takes pride in occasionally misquoting his sources. He often quotes from memory. Mental playfulness seems to be his intimate motto. He juggles ideas and writes with the delight of a genuine dilettante.
Armond White reviews Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness: The film “is too jumbled and overanxious for coherent amusement. Hard to believe that Marvel is still churning out this garbage.”
The Giro d’Italia started yesterday. Boris Starling writes about the race in the Critic: “‘The Tour is very international, whereas the Giro is Italian,’ said former rider Christian Vande Velde. ‘Lot of cologne. Lot of hair product.’ And hospitality too, of course. ‘You can be in a little hotel out in the country and the pasta is the best you’ve ever had, the meat is amazing, and the coffee is perfect,’ said the Australian cyclist Heinrich Haussler. ‘No disrespect to the other races, but that’s not the case there.’”
Mattie Kahn tells the story of her great-uncle Arthur Kahn, the first Jew killed in the Holocaust:
Here is the foundational narrative on which I was raised: In March 1933, my great-uncle Arthur Kahn walked out of his apartment in Würzburg, Germany, for what was supposed to be a short Easter-break trip to see relatives. He was 21, training to be a doctor. He didn’t know it, but his name had been placed on a list of students suspected of Communist ties. He had none, but he was arrested in Nuremberg. A few weeks later, he was transferred to Dachau, which had just opened as a prison. Adolf Hitler had been in power for 10 weeks. Within 24 hours of his arrival, Arthur was killed—believed to be the first shot among a group of four Jewish men and the Holocaust’s first Jewish victim.
A survey of modern buildings in Britain:
Hatherley goes on a taxonomical spree. He has identified fifteen types of modernism. Most make sense, though examples of certain types are rare and hardly merit being placed in a separate category, while others resist all but the most sweeping of labels. Buildings are, evidently, human constructs. They are not accommodating to scientific measurement and analysis, even though, in the wake of Rickman, Pevsner and other pigeonholers, a school of historians wishes they were. Hatherley is, as ever, zealous in his avoidance of the debased, jargon-dense prose that is obligatory in architectural schools and journals. He makes it clear that he is writing for a constituency that architects patronisingly refer to as the “lay public”. That rather hints at how the trade regards itself. Each building in this book, which is arranged by region, is placed into one of the fifteen categories Hatherley has devised, so that every entry is labelled “Classical Modernism”, “Modernist Eclectic”, “Moderne” and so on. Perhaps the presumably untutored lay public needs to have its hand held. Maybe it needs the guidance furnished by such terms as “People’s Detailing”, “Pseudomodernism”, “Constructivism” and “Ecomodernism”, of the last of which there’s not much here. Should that surprise us, given that every architect in the world routinely describes their work as “sustainable”? Not really: the term is just a collective lie.”
Ancient cave art of human figures discovered in Alabama: “Hundreds of images are etched into mud across roughly 4,300 square feet of the cave’s ceiling. Abstract shapes and swirling lines appear alongside rattlesnakes, bears, insects, birds and humanlike figures created by Native American artists under the flickering light of river-cane torches sometime between 660 and 949 C.E.”
Speaking of the ancient art of Native Americans, John Wilson recommends Craig Childs’s Tracing Time: Seasons of Rock Art on the Colorado Plateau: “With Childs as our guide—a guide who talks with and listens to many interlocutors, women and men, Native and not, academic and not, a wonderfully various lot—we are invited to experience both a profound sense of otherness and a fundamental human bond, neither one cancelling out the other.”