Monthly Archives: July 2015

Salem on the Thames: What Connecticut College’s Andrew Pessin Affair Teaches Us.

Salem on the Thames:

What Connecticut College’s Andrew Pessin Affair Teaches Us.

[A briefer version of this article has been published at American Interest.]

Academics like to think of themselves as autonomous thinkers. Academia – literally the protected realm of free speech – give professors enormous privileges, not only the right to speak their minds, but also not to lose their livelihood by displeasing those more powerful. Few members of even developed democracies enjoy the exceptional privileges of freedom given to academics: to speak out, dissent, criticize, to “speak truth to power” with relative impunity. Try getting such individuated folks to all toe one line? Try herding cats.

The very fact that civil polities treasure such safe spaces for free speech, attests to their progressive bona fides. Historically, power elites suffocate dissent; yet modern democracies invest heavily in a free academy. Especially in our times, when new social networks can turn ominously feral, one might hope that academics and their institutions, especially small face-to-face communities, could return that investment and resist such anonymous, predatory, crowd behavior.

The Pessin Affair, Connecticut College Spring Semester 2015

And yet, this is precisely what appears to have happened this last semester at Connecticut College where, for two months, a controversy turned campus life upside down. Active participants saw it as a time of mobilization, deepening and enlarging the inclusively excellent community, a revolutionary time of courage, commitment and democratic reform. Others, mostly outsiders and (rare) internal critics, saw it differently: Pessin was a scapegoat sacrifice. And sure enough, the incident begs out for a Girardian analysis of the sacred violence at the origin of all primitive religious solidarity. Kill an arbitrary, surrogate victim, a scapegoat, and create solidarity among the guilty survivor-participants. Of course, being a post-modern sacrifice, there was no blood.

For a Smile: Amazing Pics

Every once in a while we just need something like this. Enjoy! HT: Funpic and Fropki.

The Pessin Affair and Rhino-Peacocks: The Pre-modern Rhino Hide on the Post-Modern Campus

In a previous post from 2010, I proposed the term Peacock-Rhinos to describe a tendency on the “left” of people like Judge Richard Goldstone and members of the international “human rights” organizations,  who thought of themselves as truly good, caring, empathic people who nonetheless had grown the hide of the Rhinoceros that Ionesco so devastatingly describes among those who gave in to fascism’s collective appeal.

The Pessin Affair and Peacock-Rhinos

In preparing some essays on the Pessin Affair, I wanted to use the term Peacock-Rhino to describe the group who attacked Pessin by claiming deep personal pain even trauma at reading his Facebook post. In rereading the post where I first proposed the term, I realize the phenomenon, best exemplified by the star of this particular staged emergency, Lamiya Khandaker, varies considerably from that of Goldstone. What I emphasized in an earlier post was the rhinos’ hide, their thick skin, their imperviousness to empirical reality and reasoned argument, their willingness to run over anything that gets in their way. But in the Pessin Affair, this trait exists alongside another, seemingly contradictory one – an exquisitely thin skin.

At least one species of Peacock Rhinos has very thin skins, and almost anything will set off deeply-felt responses. In modern terminology, they have very bad anger management skills. An affront can trigger a violent tirade; words can ever harm them. In some cases, this is true of people who are simply rhinos, like the Jihadis who go bonkers at the very sight of a picture of Muhammad, no matter how anodine and slaughter blasphemers in response. In 2006, for example, at false news that the Pope had called Islam inherently violent – apparently an unbearable insult to the faithful – set thousands of Muslims the world over to rioting in protests that killed dozens of people. Rather than laugh at the childish absurdity of people violently objecting to being called violent, most Western commentators, both journalistic and political, pressured the pope to apologize.

As there, so in many other places, the guardians of the Western public sphere call for systemic placation. To crudely summarize the prevailing attitude one finds among not just diplomats but journalists and policy advisors: Don’t piss them off. As a result of this pervasive placation of cries of injury, those thin-skinned folks who bruise easily and have problems with anger management get to lead with their glass chin. If you will, they manage an elaborate intimidation/protection racket, carried out in the name of sensitivity. The widespread belief that drawing pictures of Muhammad is somehow “punching down” and in bad taste because it hurts the feelings of over a billion Muslims illustrates the dynamic.

At Connecticut College, however, we find a special breed of Peacock Rhino. There the activist students used this aggressive sensitivity to maximum effect by expressing it as a vulnerability. Everywhere in this affair, one hears of the wounded, anxious, unsafe, deeply hurt, students, whose trauma at encountering Pessin’s Facebook post, triggered and sustained the entire episode. The gaping wound their deliberate misreading of his piece provoked, provided the occasion and sustenance of revolutionary time.