A middle-aged physician is invited to give a guest lecture in a small liberal arts college, but no one shows up to hear him. That fact doesn’t stop his lecture from becoming the center of a “cancel culture” firestorm that has him running for his life.
Nevergreen, a savagely satirical novel by Connecticut College philosophy professor Andrew Pessin, is a mixture of Brave New World and Lord of the Flies, resulting in a fast-paced, witty portrait of the inverted reality in today’s “woke” college scene. The biting satire, simultaneously frightening and funny, is fiction, but for its author, it hits close to home. More on that later.
Pessin’s protagonist, known only by his initial, J., is accused of a nameless violation of the Virtue Code and finds himself alone to face the unhinged mob. Students, professors and administration fall in lockstep. Like his counterpart, Joseph K. in Kafka’s, The Trial, J. struggles to prove his innocence without being told what he’s accused of.
“It’s the complaint that was filed above a short while ago. The violation.”
“Of the Virtue Code, my dear. An Offensiveness Complaint.”
“But again. What does that have to do with me?”
“I am sorry for being unclear. The complaint has been filed against you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Virtue Code spells out a procedure for individuals—” Robert began.
“No,” J. interrupted. “I mean, what did I do?”
“I am afraid,” Aal answered, “I cannot give you that information.”
“I don’t understand. I’m charged with something and you can’t even tell me what?”
“It’s confidential. To protect the plaintiffs, my dear.”
“Plaintiffs? Was there – more than one?”
“I’m sorry, I cannot give you that information.”
“I don’t understand – Was it something I said?”
“Possibly. Not necessarily.”
J. suggests that he would like to get a lawyer.
“No, friend J., listen,” Aaliyah answered quickly. “That will be seen as aggressive. You’ll take a leave instead. Effective immediately.”
“But I don’t work here.”
J. is repeatedly told not to defend himself.
“Absolutely not. You’ll just get everyone angrier at you. As if you’re blaming them for being offended by you.”
“Just stay silent,” Luiz said.
“If they decide to target you there is no escape,” says Pessin in a recent telephone interview. “Campus cancel culture condemns anyone who has a different viewpoint, silences them, or gets rid of them. J. is being canceled because of a lecture he gave which no one attended. It’s Kafkaesque. It’s often not about what the person said or did. He is being canceled for reasons disconnected from reality. The students are attacking more an idea in their own mind rather than what the person said or believes.”
Upon his arrival on campus, Pessin’s protagonist tours the Student Clubs Expo, thus providing the reader with a sense of the climate on many campuses today. He sees tables for the Revisionist History Club, the Conspiracy Club, the Indigenous Peoples’ Club next to the Settler-Colonial Club, the Marginalized Peoples’ Club, and the Cultural Appropriation Club. The campus also boasts a Jihadi Martyrs Club and an Ur-Nazi Club. Nevergreen is so relentless in its commitment to inclusivity that it is the only school in the country to employ affirmative action quotas for white supremacists. It is “wokeness” taken to its extreme, to illuminate the contradictions at its core.
In a similar vein, a “Differently Abled Club” is clamoring to make the pool’s high diving board wheelchair accessible.
“It’s for the principle, the principle of inclusion,” the earnest young woman explained when J. asked whether any wheelchair-bound person were likely to actually use it.”
Principles that look wonderful on the surface become ridiculous when taken to the extreme, says Pessin, the author of numerous philosophy books and three novels. “On campuses, for example, this commitment to the principle of inclusion is often extended to groups that are not themselves inclusive,” he says. “We see that Muslim students are a protected and treasured minority on campus, which is perhaps as it should be, but then this quickly slides into protecting global Islamist causes as well. It thus becomes possible for allegedly ‘progressive’ campus communities to openly side with very much non-progressive groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and even the Taliban. Jews, meanwhile, who historically have been deeply committed to democratic and liberal principles, are instead viewed as white and privileged.”
Tellingly, there is no Hillel or any other Jewish club on the fictional campus of Nevergreen College.
Nevertheless, there is a Jewish subtext deeply woven into the plot if one knows where to look. There are no Jews on this campus, but the main character targeted for canceling goes by the initial “J.,” suggesting not only Kafka but, perhaps a nod to Howard Jacobson’s novel, J., the Jew – increasingly the target of campus cancel campaigns. There are references in the book to some earlier “Episode,” which seems to explain why there are no Jews on this campus. A Prof. A. M. Alek of the Near East Languages and Literature department played a major role in the Episode. When spelled out, of course, his name becomes Amalek, the biblical enemy of the Israelites, the nemesis whom the Torah commands Jews never to forget.
There is someone studying Jewish subjects, but it’s done in the library at night in the dark with the stacks illuminated by a small lamp because the campus atmosphere is not tolerant of open identification of Jewishness. A character named Elijah mentions studying the Book of King Solomon, the Shechinah and other terms that allude to Jewish studies. She too does this in secret. And so on.
“Nevergreen makes the point that the contemporary campus situation is very much about the Jews even where neither the campus, nor the novel, explicitly mention the Jews,” says Pessin.
“Whenever large groups of people are gripped by some all-consuming universalist ideology, as campus activists currently are, it never turns out well for the Jews.”
As the campus bureau editor for the Algemeiner newspaper, Pessin has been closely following the proliferating antisemitic incidents in the past few years: Zionist students forced out of student government, angry demonstrations against Israel accompanied by outright calls for its destruction, Hillel buildings defaced, Chabad houses vandalized, thousands of professors signing one-sided statements condemning the world’s lone Jewish state.
Officially the novel is a satire, but Pessin knows first-hand what it’s like to get “canceled.”
In 2015, Pessin fell victim to a cancel attack by anti-Israel students that hinged on a deliberate misinterpretation of his words. During the 2014 IDF Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Pessin wrote a Facebook post defending the Israeli blockade on Hamas. The context made it undeniably clear that Pessin referred to Hamas and not to Palestinians in general.
Yet seven months later, in a coordinated attack, three editorials in the student newspaper accused Pessin of promoting Palestinian genocide by taking his comment entirely out of context and without giving Pessin an opportunity to respond.
Pessin became the epicenter of a cancel campaign with almost all of the academic departments, and even the university president, denouncing Pessin’s alleged “hateful” rhetoric. A Palestinian flag was draped on a banister near his office and he received death threats from around the world.
Shaken, he left campus for a two-year sabbatical.
During that time, he co-edited a book called Anti-Zionism on Campus: The University, Free Speech, and BDS, documenting dozens of episodes where pro-Israel faculty and students were targeted for cancellation. When he returned to campus, Pessin added Jewish studies as well as Zionism to the courses he offers.
“Jews are being chased off campuses, not just figuratively but in many ways literally,” he says. “Many campuses have a completely inverted reality. They condemn Israel but it’s Israel [that] is far more consonant with their own ideals of inclusion and tolerance. Campuses, in the name of inclusion, are siding with the anti-inclusive party. It’s absurd in the extreme. It’s not even subtle. In the academy, there should be room for nuance and that is gone. Either you are in, or you are out. There is no middle ground. And so, in many campus communities, the narrative is basically ‘Israel, evil,’ and ‘Israel’s enemies, good.’”
Pessin looks back on the time when he published his Anti-Zionism on Campus book almost as “glory days” since in the intervening three years the situation has grown much worse.
“The National Association of Scholars has documented some 180 cases of ‘cancellation’ on North American universities going back to 2015, and that list does not include the increasingly frequent cancellation of Jews who support Israel,” says Pessin.
He named his fictional college for the very real Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where, in 2017 a Jewish biology professor named Bret Weinstein, a self-proclaimed progressive, was hounded out of his post for being on the wrong side of an issue. He objected to the college asking white students and faculty to absent themselves for a day. Like Pessin, Weinstein was physically intimidated.
According to Pessin, Jews are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement was the front wave of today’s campus cancel culture, tracing back at least to the 2001 UN Conference in Durban, but has since become an overall attack on free speech.
“On any given campus, there will be a small core group of real Israel and Jew-haters, who, because of the concept of “intersectionality,” which claims that all forms of oppression are connected, will hook all the progressive groups on campus to their cause. They make it the case that anyone who cares about progressive causes, and that is the majority, must be anti-Israel. They manage to energize a much larger population of people who are perhaps not Jew-haters in their hearts. They then cancel not just the Jews, via the BDS movement, but anyone perceived to be anti-progressive, by their conception of progressive.”
Having experienced the devastating effects of being canceled, Pessin admits to some qualms about reactions to his latest book.
“I would be afraid to speak about cancel culture in my classroom,” he says. “I deflect any such questions. Anecdotally, many professors are afraid to broach any controversial subject in their classrooms. It’s terrifying. Academics shouldn’t be afraid that wrath will fall upon their heads for having opinions. I’m anticipating getting in trouble for this book.”
Information about Nevergreen may be found at www.andrewpessin.com/nevergreen