In 2017, a controversy embroiled Bret Weinstein, a self-described liberal, white professor at Evergreen State College, who was vilified by students when he refused to stay off campus on the School’s Day of Absence, an annual event during which Evergreen’s white students and faculty are urged not to come to campus. “On a college campus,” Weinstein told students, “one’s right to speak — or to be — must never be based on skin color.”
In response to what was perceived to be his astounding audacity in questioning what had become black students’ opportunity to banish whites from campus in order to promote their self-determination, Weinstein was denounced for his “anti-blackness,” faced calls for his dismissal, and even confronted threats to do him physical harm, as student thugs, armed with clubs and baseball bats, roamed the campus looking for Weinstein and other administrators who prostrated themselves before the social justice warrior hordes who virtually took over the entire campus and, as a reward for their criminal behavior, wrestled a bundle of concessions from the feckless administration.
Professor Weinstein was one of the first—and one of the most visible—victims in the cancel culture that has now engulfed many university campuses, paroxysmic moral orgies in which virtue-signaling students and faculty–usually, though not exclusively, on the left—censure and public humiliate anyone who has voiced unacceptable opinions, written forbidden thought, taught dissenting views that challenge or question the prevailing orthodoxy of race-obsessed universities. The targets of these moral witch hunts are denounced, made pariahs on their respective campuses, face termination, or are otherwise chastised by students who have learned that their status as victims has given them great moral currency and the ability to shame and expel anyone—fellow students, faculty, staff—with views that differ from their own.
This troubling trend forms the basis of a satiric, yet dark new novel from Professor Andrew Pessin, Nevergreen, a book whose own title gives a nod to the Evergreen affair and which follows the tortured protagonist, J., a middle-aged, burnt-out professor who finds himself on the Nevergreen island campus as a guest speaker, and ends up in a nightmarish Orwellian pursuit by students who “hate hate” and wish to violently purge all haters from their midst.
Nevergreen is literally an island in the book and it is a fitting setting for this morality play since universities have been referred to as “islands of repression in a sea of freedom,” places, like Nevergreen, where coddled, virtue-signaling students take it upon themselves to purge their schools of dissenting thought—that is, any views not in lockstep with their progressive ideas of the power and sanctity of identity politics
The reader, and even J. himself, does not know the nature of his offense, or why students have decided that, in their campaign to “hate hate” they have targeted him for their ire and condemnation. On campuses where implied racism, triggers, and microaggressions are thought of as serious offenses to minority sensibility, and subject to punishment, the actual offense is not even necessarily that significant; more important is the victim’s perception of how the offense has injured him or her, how it has made them feel. Virtue-signaling students purportedly speaking on behalf of the marginalized and down-trodden assume a self-righteousness that insulates them from critique or even the need to justify their actions.
Thus, without even knowing what he might have said, and given that he did not even deliver his planned lecture, J. spends the entire novel being pursued by faceless, motiveless gangs of students wishing to expel or terminate him, while feckless and mindless fellow faculty and administrators live in an alternate universe where they tolerate the madness of the self-righteous student body and both fear and dismiss the power of the students’ aggressive and potentially dangerous self-righteousness.
J, is suspended in a state of fear and confusion; he is trapped on an island from which he cannot escape, pursued by angry students intent on punishing him for an unknown offense, lost in a maze of buildings and trails on a campus that, ironically, had been a lunatic asylum, and fearing for his very life as the increasingly violent and aggressive hoard of students searching for him begin to resemble the atavistic children on their own island in Lord of the Flies as they sacrifice feral pigs in their own ritual of moral purification and the pursuit of “acceptable” behavior and speech.
The situation, though exaggerated in the novel to make a dark point, has unfortunately been played out on dozens of campuses where faculty, and some students, have been maligned and made into pariahs for articulating views that are unacceptable to these self-professed virtuous social justice warriors.
None of the victims of campus cancel culture have had to face potential physical harm, as does the protagonist of Nevergreen, but the message of the exaggerated action of the novel is clear: that this troubling trend on campus which has students and faculty purging thought with which they disapprove, assuming their views are the only correct one, is what Rod Dreher as termed “soft totalitarianism.” That the perpetrators do this out of some professed concern for the oppressed does not excuse their behavior because they not only violate the important values of academic free speech and expression, but it is antithetical to what the university was created for in the first place: an intellectual marketplace of ideas where debate, research, and dialogue can lead us to truths and knowledge, a situation sadly absent from most campuses today.
Perhaps when C.S. Lewis despaired of “omnipotent moral busybodies . . . who torment us for our own good,” he was speaking about those well-meaning, but dangerously naïve college students, like those roaming the Nevergreen campus, who “torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
This novel is both a warning and demonstration of how this torment has a high, and tragic, human cost.