Taking Back the University: Better to be Feared Than Loved

Robert Weissberg

As the current brouhaha at Emory University over President Wagner’s “insensitive” remarks escalates, the obvious question is, “Why?”  On its face it makes no sense—Wagner’s magazine essay hardly demanded ending affirmative action or anything else that could materially harm anybody on campus. Nor, unlike Harvard’s Larry Summers in his dust-up with Cornel West, did Wagner question someone’s scholarly commitment. The entire Emory incident amounts to an inconsequential quibble. 

Though I am not privy to the inner thoughts of those condemning Wagner, let me offer an explanation of the events based on my thirty-five years in the academy (some of it spent confronting political correctness (PC) attacks on me personally).

The operative term is extortion and I’ll use the Mafia as my example (ironically, a perfectly safe choice since Mafiosi only kill their enemies, but do not call them racists). The typical extortion racket offers “protection” for pay-offs. But with time, the “protected” may grow reluctant to pay. So, to keep the cash rolling in, the local enforcers must forcibly remind their victims of their obligations.

The Mafia chooses its victim to maximize publicity, for example, Mario, the popular elderly proprietor of the local fish market. Word quickly spreads—nobody wants to be the next Mario. By contrast, the Mafia will avoid extorting a business run by a grim-faced Albanian since clannish Albanians are as tough as nails and, most importantly, will fight violence with violence.

From the perspective of the PC gang, attacking Wagner for racial insensitivity is the equivalent of terrorizing the powerless Mario. At Emory this tempest in a teapot is only a “friendly reminder” of what could happen if anybody seriously challenges the racial spoils system.   

Today’s fans of race/class/gender identity politics have long learned that (a) their targets, regardless of academic distinction (Wagner has published some 115 professional articles), will never defend themselves, even if student activists trash their offices, and (b) nobody—not even their close friends, let alone the faculty will publicly rally around their targets. Bereft allies and victims of PC outage are helpless and immediately grovel before those who wave the banners of diversity, inclusion, and all the rest. In fact, since future victims know their fate, it’s better to surrender at the first sign of trouble rather than holding out until reinforcements arrive. This is The Great Fact of University Life that explains why the PC crowd almost always wins no matter how stupid its demands.

Those who might doubt this explanation need only ask why campus feminists and LGBT groups eschew criticizing Islamic groups for misogyny and homophobia —Muslims fight back, perhaps even forcefully. 

Let me offer some reasons why administrators so quickly surrender. Most obviously, advancing up the academic career ladder has zero to do with traditional warrior virtues. Darwinian survival in the university requires building clever alliances, intellectual one-upmanship, a knack for sniffing out disciplinary fashions and other abilities totally unrelated to personal combativeness. “Warrior” types are culled from the herd in graduate school (recall the adage that a friend in academic life is one who stabs you in the front).  

The academic culture profoundly differs from the norms of street gangs, Middle Eastern clans, and military units (to mention just a few) where an attack on one is an attack on all that must to be revenged publicly. Ask any police gang specialist about the latest shootings—today’s gang killings overwhelmingly result from revenge, and without revenge killing, there is no honor and honor is paramount. Pigs will fly before college presidents en masse travel to Atlanta to rally around James W. Wagner. Actually, I’ll bet that several of these presidents are appraising their own chances of getting the well-paid Emory position if Wagner gets the ax (and I would also guess that his administrative subordinates are similarly scheming). 

The tenured faculty is equally spineless. I’d guess that there are dozens of Emory professors who would largely concur with President Wagner’s reading of the three-fifths compromise. Alas, as far as I know, all are conscientious objectors in the war against political correctness. The Bloods and the Crips far outshine the Emory faculty when it comes to standing up for one’s own.

A single word applies to this lack of support against the PC mob: cowardice. That most faculty are tenured and risk little if they were to rally to the embattled President only makes the cowardice worse. Imagine the incredulous reaction of a visiting Soviet-era dissident when told about the faculty’s apathy. This dissident who probably spent years in the gulag might conclude that the PC crowd must employ some invisible KGB-like terror apparatus.
Wagner’s travail exposes an embarrassing dereliction of duty by those who cherish intellectual freedom. To illuminate this cowardice, let me offer an alternative scenario in which we act like our enemies.

At the first sign of Wagner’s trouble, hundreds of Emory students hold a raucous demonstration with signs such as “Truth hurts. Get used to it.” Busloads of students beyond Atlanta arrive and build a campus tent city to show solidarity (and a campus police effort to tear it down only creates more publicity). A name emerges-- “The Emory Awakening.” “Friends of Jim” set up a website (and Facebook page) depicting the latest hilarious PC stupidities. A few “brave” Emory professors wear “I am not offended” buttons. In some obscure basement a group of geeky students prepare the nuclear option—they hack into the university’s database for the names of prominent donors and send each a letter detailing how this ill-informed attack on Wagner contravenes Emory’s commitment to intellectual freedom (administrators must, of course, lamely respond).    

Meanwhile a defense fund raises $10,000 the first day while faculty elsewhere organize teach-ins on the importance of campus free speech and the evils of political correctness.  Distinguished law firms offer pro bono help including suing Wagner’s detractors for libel. Internet petitions endorsing Wagner’s historical interpretation circulate along with numerous letters to the editors. The Wall Street Journal runs a front-page story, “Has the PC Crowd Finally Met Its Match?”

Needless to say, all of this is unlikely. Pigs will go super-sonic before defenders of free speech are feared. As long as a credible threat of unwelcome retaliation is absent, the forces of PC are unstoppable.

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