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.
Over the course of the Spring semester 2015, at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut, Philosophy Professor Andrew Pessin got driven from campus based on a malevolent reading of a Facebook post in which he depicted “the situation” in Gaza as one in which the Israelis had confined a “rabid pit bull” to a cage, while animal rights advocates insisted they let the poor dog out. Although Pessin didn’t specify in the text, he and a commenter did specify this image referred to the terrorist. But in a dishonest attack spearheaded by a Muslim student who in High School had begun a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, and a Muslim professor, newly appointed head of the new “Global Islamic Studies Program,” a small group of activists, given the run of the school paper by its editors, accused Pessin of comparing all Palestinians to rabid dogs and calling for them to be “put down.” Pessin, they claimed,
directly condoned the extermination of a people. A member of our community has called for the systematic abuse, killing, and hate of another people.
(The editor who arranged for the publication of all three letters, including duping a recent graduate to join the crusade, did not ask Pessin for a response in the same issue.)
Shock and horror spread through the community, triggering among many traumatic memories of such verbal, racial, dehumanizing abuse, arousing previously silenced “marginal voices.” A great cry went up against the racists and the hate-speakers of all kinds (not just Pessin). Racist graffiti, probably written by an outsider, roused another cry of hurt and indignation, and feeling unsafe. The President caved to student demands that everything stop, and the entire campus turn themselves to a mandatory discussion of racism and hatred, where those accusing Pessin had the conch, and labeled anyone who disagreed with them “racists.”
While the invigorated community found new meaning, the scapegoat found this “inclusively excellent, safe space” a nightmare. A month after an explosion made his house uninhabitable by his ailing wife and three kids, Pessin found himself the subject of a relentless campaign of vilification, of campus-wide, and with the online petition, worldwide reproof, including from places that produce the fanatics who have assassinated other people who offend Muslims. At the same time, he felt abandoned by his colleagues, including the chair of his department, who threw him under the bus in deference to a crying student. Indeed, both administrators and colleagues urged him not to defend himself, lest he anger the students further. One colleague asked him to stop making life difficult for those Jews still on campus by fighting back.
Overwhelmed by his family situation, the hostility and the lack of support from his colleagues, on March 23, Pessin took a medical leave of absence. The next day, the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) issued a formal condemnations of hate speech, citing “the Facebook post of a certain faculty member.” In rapid succession virtually every department, program, and institution on campus issued a similar pronouncements, marked primarily by their mimetic and superficial piety. Dissenters got pressured; near total unanimity prevailed. And during this time, one out of two hundred colleagues emailed Pessin to find out his side of the story. Cats mindlessly toeing the line, all convinced they were “doing the right thing.”
The administration held an all-campus open forum on March 25, to allow students to speak about racism on campus, to denounce hate speech. Bergeron’s remarks, however, refused to name Pessin, arousing the activists, who wanted to subject Pessin to “Red Guard” humiliation, to anger. Students opened their remarks with “Fuck you Bergeron!” Complained one of the accusers, “how can we heal if Pessin isn’t denounced by name?” The next day, activists rammed two resolutions through the Student Government.
Nor was Pessin alone silenced: anyone who questioned the charges got labeled a racist. The “discussion” about race and hate quickly became intimidating and indoctrinating. Indeed the predictable tragedy of the whole affair was how in the name of such progressive goals, this revolutionary moment actually empowered some of the most anti-progressive forces on campus. The administration quickly appointed three interim “Deans of Institutional Equity and Inclusion,” all from CCSRE, who planned a series of events that, at least where Israel was concerned, systematically pumped hate propaganda into the campus community. The Girardian sacrifice was complete, and the new order it introduced was hostile to the very community of tolerance that gave birth to it. Said one dissident to his colleagues: “some (and over time an increasing number) of us will feel the emotion shame: shame at the way the faculty treated Andy. And I will be one of them.”
What the Pessin Affair Teaches Us: A Cogwar Analysis
The events of Spring 2015 at Connecticut College constitute an unalloyed if local victory for the forces of cognitive war waged by Islamists against West democracy. To most of those prominently involved, especially in fields like Race and Gender, but even, I suspect, in Global Islamic Studies, such a claim seems outlandish even paranoid: in their minds this had nothing to do with Jihad or even with Islamism, but everything to do with human rights and dignity and democracy.
They are welcome to their opinion. But if they are wrong and I, right – a possibility to say the least – then the consequences of this victory deserve close attention. Anyone familiar with Islamist cogwar practices, sees major success across the boards, including extensive cooperation between the Global Jihadi Right (GJR) and the Global Progressive Left (GPL), all in the name of a common revolutionary desire to transform the nascent global community. But while both groups can claim victory, events clearly favored the Jihadis’ perception that Western secular globalization was a vehicle for Global Islamic domination: Praeparatio califatae. They not only demonized and isolated Israel and her supporters, they shielded some of the most odious Jihadi hate speech on the planet today from “Islamophobic” criticism.
The following reflections offer a brief analysis of the forces at play that enabled this spectacular if minor victory, and what light that sheds on strengths and vulnerabilities of both sides in this wildly asymmetrical conflict.
Demopaths and their Progressive Dupes: The people who organized the drive that chased Pessin from campus were demopaths. They systematically invoked principles of fairness, empathy, and concern for the “other” when claiming the protections of a progressive society for themselves – e.g. protection from dehumanizing criticism – but refused those protections to others. In this case, they claimed a psychic trauma at the very possibility that a professor might have called for genocide, even as they ostracized that professor and protected, validated and promoted the cause of a group that openly calls for genocide.
Staged Emergencies as Cogwar Campaign Strategy: Ashley Thorne identified a phenomenon of “staged emergencies.” Outraged and wounded voices accuse a target of allegedly “racist” or “misogynist” speech and insist that their often deliberate misreading has caused a traumatic crisis that needs urgent and total attention. Professor John Gordon described the
on-line person whose whole point of existence is to be offended… because we are all in this “trigger-point” phase where being offended on-line and therefore being licensed to vent your offendedness, thus demonstrating your moral superiority to anyone not thus offended…
By the time the petition came out, it was racist and dehumanizing to compare Hamas to a pit bull, even though they embrace precisely what the petitioners denounced: “dehumanization… genocide… colonialism… and hatred of others.”
Demopaths have weaponized PoMo-PoCo academic discourse.
A revolutionary force from within the GPL has joined in alliance with the GJR against American imperial hegemony. This “anti-imperialism of fools,” best embodied by the (allegedly) pacifist Judith Butler, welcoming Hamas and Hizbullah into the GPL as fellow anti-imperialists, despite their raging and merciless imperialist ambitions.
Demonstration of Useful Infidels at Democratic Convention, Denver 2008
Nowhere is the GPL/GJR alliance more visible than in their shared view of Israel as the Dajjal/Antichrist, the apocalyptic enemy in the battle for world salvation: Destroy Israel for World Peace! Here progressives permit Jihadis to indulge in ferocious hatred and incitement against Israel; but when it comes to Islamic extremism, one should ban “telling the truth,” as “hate-speech.” The same ideologues who reject Jewish complaints that it’s anti-Semitic to compare Israel with the Nazis – “w[hat] t[he] f[uck], it’s pissing me off,” wrote Pessin’s major assailant – consider criticism of Jihadi depravity a reflection of pervasive “Islamophobia.” One post-colonial colleague dismissed calls for “due process” as “Eurocentric.”
Global Islamic Studies (GIS) as Beachhead of Jihadi Cogwar. The faculty in the Program in GIS served played a major role in this cogwar campaign. These new loci of Islamic Studies have begun to replace more traditional Middle East Studies as the rubric under which professors teach and students learn about Islam. The systematic under- and mis-information about Islam with which post-Orientalists filled Middle East Studies, now, under the rubric of “global Islamic studies,” produces activist scholars who, often unconsciously, promote Jihad. Ivory Towers in the Sand 2.0.
Ferguson-Palestine Nexus. Palestinian Jihadis and their supporters want to graft their war onto the racial conflict in the USA: American Intifada. This became particularly evident during the disturbances at Ferguson last summer, where Palestinian activists showed solidarity with blacks favoring violent resistance. At Connecticut College, Global Islamic Studies teaches students about the (presumably favorable) “impact of Islam on the fight for racial equality in the United States.” CCSRE issued the first statement denouncing Pessin, and all three “Deans of Equity and Inclusion” came from there.
Western liberal sentiment is extraordinarily vulnerable to stampeding by this weaponized appeal. Many liberals/progressives seem incapable of questioning the motives of the Muslims with whom they “dialogue,” and attack anyone who does question them as both paranoid and “Islamophobic.” One of the key elements in Pessin’s inability to defend himself was the campus-wide consensus that, the words of the chair of Philosophy, “the students who have spoken out are not the problem, and should not be made to feel that they are the problem.” The rapidity and unanimity with which the faculty stepped into line against Pessin last Spring, indicates alarming administrative and faculty weakness when confronting emotional blackmail, a collective and individual failure of nerve when confronted with a force that threatens everything they hold dear as ethical professionals, but makes a demopathic appeal to everything they hold dear as idealists. Pressure on non-tenured faculty members must have been near insuperable. Alone among the non-tenured, English Professor Jeffrey Strabone, the Tom Bombadil of the affair, resisted the peer – and student – pressure that had so many other “cats” toeing the mimetic line. Most faculty signed the statements assuming that they, like everyone else, were doing “the right thing.”
Women played a very prominent role in Pessin’s relentless persecution. All the top administrators at ConnColl were women, including, most importantly both the new President and Dean of Faculty. Among those in the faculty, the majority of the “anti-racist” activists were women, with a high incidence of women from Global Islamic Studies and CCSRE. And finally among the students, most of the major players were women, from the major antagonist, to the two editors of the school newspaper, to the composers of articles and petitions. It suggests a puzzling vulnerability to manipulation by Islamists, given the misogyny of the people with whom they join forces. ConnColl, may mark the first time Jihadis weaponized a technique pioneered by gender-theory activists: wounded victims and the demand for safe spaces. In Jihadi hands, the wounded souls turned sharply aggressive, and the safe space they demanded was one in which no one dared oppose them. The petition insisted that “the backlash against students who have publicly identified the professor’s racism for what it was cease with immediate effect.” Rather than a post-modern utopia purged of all forms of oppressive power, this looked and sounded like a pre-modern patriarchal tyranny.
Anti-Semitism: A Significant Factor? While some (outsiders) believe Anti-Semitism was central to the motivations of Pessin’s persecutors, many at ConnColl, including the Hillel Director, insisted that, there was no significant anti-Semitism at ConnColl. John Gordon thought anti-Semitic prejudice far less significant than what he called the “ideological atmospherics,” a powerful force “nowhere more so than in academia.” Gordon refers here to PoMo-PoCo “revolutionary” beliefs that have, via anti-Zionism, allowed the Jewish Antichrist into the Western public sphere through the back (anti-racist) door. What exceptional, ideologically-shaped misinformation had to prevail, that no one in the ConnColl community (except the excluded Pessin) pointed out that comparing a genocidal organization that sacrifices its own people, to a rabid pit bull, was not only an appropriate cartoonist critique, but that, if we want to be morally sensitive, an insult to the rabid dogs who have no moral agency.
Stress Tests for Campuses. Just as we subject banks to stress tests to see how they’d hold up when challenged with a crisis, we should check out our institutions of higher learning to assess their vulnerability to these staged emergencies, especially of the Jihadi sort. Just how far has revolutionary PoMo-PoCo penetrated teaching and aligned itself with an aggressive anti-Islamophobia? The results of these stress tests would be useful to administrators interested in assembling counter-forces prepared to defend the Western public sphere in case of an attack, as well as useful to parents, wishing to choose a campus that will do best by their children.
Only when we can tell the difference between real pain and staged pain, can we defend a tradition of freedom of speech that needs those people who wish to live free, including Muslims, to have seriously thick skins when it comes to criticism of themselves. So far it’s one way – “Privileged,” “Eurocentric,” Westerners must be ferociously self-critical, while critics freely brutalize, without tolerating any criticism, a catastrophic marriage of pre-modern sadism and post-modern masochism.
As for the faculty and students at ConnColl, they are in an enviable position. Self-criticism and contrition from them could produce extraordinary learning curves in the life of their institution of “higher learning.” If any place could profit from a performance of The Crucible right now, it’s Salem on the Thames. If any student newspaper and governmental organization had an opportunity to hold an searching (and possibly searing) discussion of what it means to run an elected body or a newspaper, it’s ConnColl’s SGA and the College Voice. Imagine the maturity of those who would have gone through that process. Imagine the resilience of the culture with people experienced in defending an open (inclusive) society. We, especially progressives, need not mime the blood sacrifices of old.
A still longer and more comprehensive account of the affair and its meaning will follow at this site.