On Weaponizing Literature, Campus Cancel Culture, and Why I Wrote Nevergreen

September 2021

As those who watch today’s North American campuses know, these are challenging times for, dare I say it, sane persons.

The university has become almost unrecognizable compared to what it once was, or at least was ideally conceived to be. In place of the reasoned deliberation that was its modus operandi we find feverish activism; in place of the “neutral forum for civil debate in the shared pursuit of truth” that was its raison d’être, we find the domination and enforcement of official orthodoxies. Disagreement, once its lifeblood, the driving force for intellectual advancement, now is anathema. If you dare to differ from some particular orthodoxy, it’s because (in the best-case scenario) you simply don’t understand, typically because you enjoy some unearned privileges that blind you to the experiences of others. In the worst-case scenario it’s because you, in fact, are part of the problem, not merely because you enjoy those privileges but because you are actively defending them. You are, in other words, a racist, or a homophobe, or a transphobe, or an Islamophobe…

Though the intensity has grown dramatically in recent years, the change has been a long time coming, generations even. Postmodernism brought an attack on the idea of objective truth; relativism, perhaps motivated by tolerance and respect for diversity, magnified that attack. Trace these movements back to (say) Nietzsche or Marx and you replace the idea of objective truth—of an independent reality or standard against which we must measure and evaluate our claims—with the idea that everything we believe is an expression or reflection of power or will-to-power. The ideas that reign in a society reinforce the power structures, they say; and the ideas possessed by certain individuals ultimately reflect their own quest for power. If that is so, then when you and I disagree about something it is not really about who is correct and who is not correct, about whose opinion better reflects that reality independent of both of us. Rather, it is a struggle between you and me for power, for who shall dominate whom. And if that is so, then it is no longer enough that a different point of view simply be disagreed with or argued against: It must be silenced or eliminated. In today’s popular idiom, the different point of view isn’t merely a different point of view. It is an expression, ultimately, of hate. And there is no place for hate on a university campus.

All of this culminates in the production of “cancel culture” on campus: those who disagree with the reigning orthodoxies must be no-platformed, literally eliminated from the table of discourse and in some cases from the campus altogether. The National Association of Scholars currently documents some 180 cases at North American universities going back to 2015, and that list, I assure you, is not complete—nor finished.

The process is depressingly familiar. Some professor, or perhaps some invited speaker, says or writes something or is expected to say something that riles the roost. Outrage ensues. Sometimes an outright mob scene with demonstrations and protests. Always an online campaign, with petitions demanding disinvitation, condemnation, sanction, termination. Everything goes viral, circulating the globe and getting hundreds or thousands of signatures, lasting days or weeks or more. The targeted person, often doxxed, receives hate messages including death threats. Sometimes concrete results are obtained: disinvitations, investigations, even terminations. Almost always some generic statement from a university administration, vaguely defending freedom of speech while at the same time condemning the cancellee for “failing to live up to our values.” Often the cancellee puts out some painful statement of contrition, a confession, even. One thing is guaranteed: outright misery for the targeted person. Should they survive the attack either with their jobs or somehow their reputations intact, they have learned the lesson: be silent. Certainly all those watching from the side, who may agree with the roost-riling proclamations or at least are willing to hear them or entertain them, learn to shut up. Nobody in their right mind wants to go through that ordeal.

And so, from a certain perspective, the academy, or important swaths of it these days, looks a little like—a madhouse.

What are we supposed to do?

We’ve done (and will continue to do) the obvious and the necessary. There are scholars who boldly and bravely contest the specific orthodoxies, hardened warriors who can bear the burdens and scars of the battle. There are academic groups contesting not necessarily the specific orthodoxies but the very concept of any academic orthodoxy, under the mantel of academic freedom and integrity: established ones include of course the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS), while newer ones include the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) and the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR). All of these are doing essential and good work, even if, to my eye, we are continuing to lose the battle.

And so, partly to try something different, partly to maintain my own sanity, and partly to follow Saul Alinsky’s famous advice “for radicals” that “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon,” I have written a novel instead. Nearly everything else is weaponized against us, we sane ones, so why not try to return the favor and weaponize a little literature? What such an approach may lose in scholarly gravitas it might make up for, one hopes, in broadening the audience, and thus the impact.

Called Nevergreen, it’s an academic satire that targets campus cancel culture and the ideological excesses that generate it. It tries to get across how out of control such campaigns can be, and in particular just what it feels like to be the victim of a cancel campaign, which—as any such victim will tell you—is not very good. My hope is that by magnifying by means of satire what really are the intellectual corruptions of the dominant campus climate and the concurrent cancel culture, Nevergreen may serve as one additional weapon in the battle for academic freedom, integrity, and indeed sanity that we are badly losing. And of course, hopefully, it’s entertaining. It won’t accomplish much unless people enjoy reading it.

Nevergreen tells the story of J., a physician in a midlife funk. A chance encounter gives him the opportunity of a lifetime, an invitation to speak at a small college. But when he arrives at the secluded island campus of Nevergreen College—not by accident, the former site of the The Nevergreen Asylum for the Lunatic, Imbecile, and Idiot—he gets a lot more than he bargained for. No one actually shows up for his talk, but that doesn’t stop it from becoming the center of a firestorm of controversy—with potentially fatal consequences. Nevergreen aims to be a smart, fast, funny, and incisive portrait of today’s liberal arts college scene, cancel culture, and more.

To give you a feel for it, among the endorsements are these comparisons: that it “brings to mind Vonnegut’s brilliant short story, ‘Harrison Bergeron,’ but on steroids,” “More Animal Farm than Animal House,” “One part Lucky Jim and three parts One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Kafka wanders through Wokeland,” “a brilliant case of David Lodge meets 1984.” A recurrent theme, happily, is that the satire succeeds in a turning a critical mirror on the underlying campus reality: “It may officially be a satire but it may as well be a documentary, it’s so close to home”; “You laugh until you realize just how close this is to reality”; and this one:

“You’ll laugh at the antics of students and the monumental irresponsibility of the administration at Nevergreen College. But it’s really no laughing matter, as our once-liberal-arts colleges, our once-celebrated elite universities, are rapidly becoming Nevergreens … This frightening satire is more truth than fiction.”

A few points to close.

An underappreciated element of the new campus culture that Nevergreen tries to convey is this. Once upon a time students came to campus to learn from and be trained by the professors, who were understood to be more educated and maybe knew stuff compared to the students. A fair analogy might be that the professor was like an employer whose job it was to train the employee, and the student’s job, qua employee, was more or less to please the professor. Then add the attack on objective truth mentioned above, and suddenly there’s no real reason to think the professor “knows more” than the student: they each have their equally valuable opinions. (This applies far more in the humanities and social sciences than in the STEM fields, the latter being far more resistant to (though not entirely immune from) the attack on objective truth.) Then add the more recent idea that students are paying customers, who, qua customers, are of course always right, and today the roles are to a substantial degree reversed. The pressure now is on the professor to please the students, rather than the other way around. Add to that even further the amply discussed perception that students today are “snowflakes,” i.e. more sensitive, fragile, and vulnerable than students once were, and it becomes important to introduce them only to material that will comfort them and ensure their feelings of safety. Given these observations it is no surprise that students are the primary drivers of campus cancel campaigns. Thus, in Nevergreen, students teach some of the classes; the administrators are assigned “student shadows” who monitor their every doing; the administrators must frequently “gauge students’ feelings” and act accordingly; and students are instructed, when confronted with counter-orthodoxy, to cover their ears and “hear no evil.”

The book also aims to critique not merely the specific orthodoxies du jour but the idea of academic orthodoxy tout court. Thus it targets not merely the “left” or “progressives” but also, in places, the “right” or “conservatives.” (Or in some places, both: Nevergreen College is so absolutely committed to diversity that it even recruits those demographics who are not tolerant of diversity; it’s therefore proud to be the only school with an affirmative action policy for white supremacists.) The idea is that any absolute or universal commitment to some ideology is academically problematic, being inconducive to the pursuit of the truth: when you are wholly committed to some orthodoxy you end up seeing everything through its lens, warranted or not, you are subject to confirmation bias, etc. Overall, the novel’s pervasive themes of irrationality and disconnection from reality reflect the danger of total commitment to ideology. In the grip of their ideologies the students there can somehow turn even the innocuous main character J. into the very “face of Hate.”

That said, since the left is by far the dominant campus orthodoxy today, it does bear the bulk of Nevergreen’s satiric ire.

As mentioned, Nevergreen attempts to communicate what it feels like to be the target of cancellation, and early readers have suggested that, as a result, the book is a mix of “academic satire” and the genre of “horror.” In his subjective (if not always reliable) experience the main character J. is being pursued, possibly, by a mob of mad, bloodthirsty murderers. But wait, do the students really want to, what, murder him? Of course not: “they’re just kids”; they’re excited to be activists about their causes; they’re easily distractable; they’re not really pursuing him. But then again, maybe they kinda sorta are pursuing him, and kinda sorta do want to murder him. Something in them revels in the aggression, the power, of cancelling, something in their ideology converts these people who are allegedly “against hate” into the deepest haters of all…

And for those who have experienced cancellation, who have been targeted with hate campaigns, publicly slandered, vilified, made out to be the enemy of all that is virtuous, good, and true, can you blame them for feeling like they are being pursued, possibly, by a mob of mad, bloodthirsty murderers?

And just mightn’t it be possible—if the present trajectory remains unchecked—that they are?