Of Dissent and its Discontents:  Beloved Community, the Black Justice League, and the Curious Case of Professor Joshua Katz

June 10, 2022

By Adam Gussow ’79 *00

[T]hat brings me to the second mode of civil disobedience. There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus -- and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it -- that unless you're free the machine will be prevented from working at all!!

--Mario Savio, Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteer and
founder of the Free Speech Movement (December 2, 1964)

 

For the past forty years I’ve given faithfully to Princeton’s Annual Giving campaign.  My contribution has been laughably modest--$100 most years, $250 when major reunions come up—but consistent.  My rationale has been heterodox:  grounded in deep gratitude for the ten years I spent on campus between 1975 and 2000 and the two degrees in English, undergrad and grad, I obtained there, but animated by the farfetched hope that small but consistent annual gifting would grace whatever children I someday produced with an incrementally better chance of gaining admission to the university that changed my life.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to suspend my annual gift for the foreseeable future and redirect it towards Princetonians for Free Speech.  It wasn’t an easy decision—I’m a loyal double Tiger—but sometimes temporary exile is the best available option.  I’m aware that I may be scotching my 16-year-old son’s chances of admission by sharing this news so publicly, and that saddens me.  A biracial Mississippian, he’s a gifted musician (euphonium, trombone) and would have carved his own quirky line across campus, wreaking wondrous havoc in the process.  But the Princeton I’ve been hoping he’d attend has been supplanted, over the past five years, by a troubled, wounded institution, one that no longer aligns with its own highest ideals, or mine.  So we’ll move on, my wife and son and I, and look elsewhere--perhaps to the University of Mississippi, where I’ve been teaching for the past two decades.  And he’ll flourish regardless, even as my heart breaks for the fact that this decision, one I couldn’t have imagined half a decade ago, now seems urgently important, a matter of conscience.

The proximate cause for my change of heart is the recent firing of Joshua Katz, a tenured professor of Classics.  Those who have been following the fraught progress of his case on the PFS website over the past several years will be unsurprised to know that an academic like me, graced with a humanities Ph.D. but located at a safe remove from Princeton’s disciplinary shenanigans, has finally had enough.  But many who know me—my career as a scholar of blues and African American literature, my thirty-year musical partnership with Harlem bluesman Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee, and of course my interracial family circle--will be surprised that Katz, of all people, is the metaphorical hill I’m prepared to die on.  Isn’t he the noted racist? some will ask—the one who showed his true colors in a Quillette essay by deriding the Black Justice League, a student activist group, as “a small local terrorist organization” and reaped the ignominy he deserved, his name and words quickly embedded into an illustrated polemical history of white supremacist bad behavior at Princeton offered by “To Be Known and Heard,” a website on the Princeton.edu domain explicitly underwritten—indeed, copyrighted in 2021--by The Trustees of Princeton University?

I’ll have more to say in a moment about that specific characterization of the BJL.  For now I’ll simply say yes, this is that hill.  And no, I haven’t suddenly taken leave of my senses.  I was blessed during my doctoral studies to work with (and in two cases TA for) Professors Arnold Rampersad, Claudia Tate, Nell Painter, Valerie Smith, and Wahneema Lubiano:  a quintet of extraordinary black mentors.  I’ve taught a course on Mississippi’s Freedom Summer of 1964 several times at my university and regularly assign works by Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Melba Pattillo Beals, and Jesmyn Ward as a way of helping my students come to grips with slavery, segregation, the struggle for civil rights, and racialized precarity in the modern South.  My entire personal and professional life, both musical and academic, has been an attempt to live out the promise of beloved community, a vision of transracial brotherhood and sisterhood grounded in “true interrelatedness” put forward, among others, by Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis.

And yet I’m willing to say that Joshua Katz, for all his flaws, is my hero—one of a diverse double handful of public intellectuals, including John McWhorter, Glenn Loury, Coleman Hughes, Chloe Valdary, Wesley Yang, Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Sam Harris, and Princeton’s own Sean Wilentz, who have managed over the past two years not just to maintain critical consciousness in the face of a would-be revolution and its illiberal tendencies, but to speak and write freely.  And yes, in some cases aggressively, even irritably.

Katz’s aggressively irritable comments about the Black Justice League, although they drew censure at the time from pretty much every corner of the campus, including his colleagues in the Department of Classics, President Eisgruber, and most of the 350-odd signatories to the July 4 manifesto that Katz had critiqued in his Quillette article, were not, as we know, the reason he was fired.  He was fired, or so it is claimed, because the re-investigation of a case of sexual misbehavior—sleeping with an undergraduate--for which he had been investigated and punished with a year’s unpaid leave in 2018, a re-investigation prompted by extensive investigative reporting in the Daily Princetonian, had disclosed new evidence of such gravity as to merit termination.  The evidence that Eisgruber, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michele Minter, Dean of the Faculty Gene Andrew Jarrett, and pretty much every other right-thinking administrator, faculty member, and campus activist had viewed Katz as an embarrassing gadfly if not an outright ideological enemy for the past two years is, we are to understand, utterly immaterial to this outcome.

Dear reader, were you born yesterday? 

Many years ago, in the summer of 1983, I interned for editor Victor Navasky at The Nation.  His long-lived and celebrated journal of opinion, he explained to me, conceived of itself as a staging ground for dialogue between liberals and the left.  I was so politically naïve at that point that I wasn’t entirely clear on the difference between those two entities.  “Liberals think that social change can be effected inside the system,” he explained, always happy to educate, “through rational debate, the passage of laws, normal governmental process.  The left knows that you sometimes need to take it to the streets.  We help them talk to each other.”

Victor’s bugaboo was McCarthyism.  Three years earlier he’d published Naming Names, a history of the Hollywood blacklist.  His favorite word, almost a mantra, was “dissent.”  The measure of a democracy’s health, he kept repeating, is its willingness not just to tolerate dissent but to value it, to make a space for it.  America during the McCarthy years, captured by anticommunist hysteria, had quashed dissent and ruined lives in a way that Victor viewed as evil—a quintessentially American mania, with roots in the Puritan witch hunts of the 1690s, that should be studied, unpacked, memorialized as a negative ideal, the better to be warded off in the future.

McCarthyism engendered fear in order to foreclose dissent:  fear of being outed as “subversive” and losing one’s job; fear of being outed—if one were homosexual—as a “sexual pervert.”  Princeton’s campus these days is wonderfully hospitable to every possible gender and sexual orientation, with a signal exception recently noted by Joshua Katz’s wife, Solveig Gold ’17:  relationships between older male faculty members and female undergraduates, at least when the older male faculty member is considered an ideological enemy of the powers that be.  Every Princetonian of conscience should be concerned by the uncanny parallel between the way in which McCarthyism mobilized sexuality—rooting out a presumed sexual “deviancy”—to silence dissent and banish undesirables and the way in which Princeton’s current administration, underwritten by a continually expanding Title IX regime and assisted by the Prince, has found it both necessary and expedient to re-investigate Katz with a fervor that just happens, miracle of miracles, to have disclosed actionable new forms of sex-adjacent misbehavior.  Foucault was right.  This is how power works, when it sees the need. 

This is no localized campus kerfuffle, no “personnel matter,” or at least it hasn’t been since July 2020.  The whole world is watching.  And the world doesn’t like what it sees.  Princeton ranks dead-last among the Ivys in a recent assessment of free-speech protections on campus conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and #134 out of 159 American colleges and universities:  an astonishing, almost incomprehensible fall from grace for an institution that has long prided itself for #1 rankings of all kinds.  My own University of Mississippi, by contrast, ranks #11:  a free-speech oasis!  Where is the closed society now?  PEN America, a blue-chip defender of liberal values and intellectual freedom around the world, understands precisely what is at stake here:

[T]he question unavoidably arises as to whether Katz’s speech [i.e., the Quillette essay], made in the period between the two investigations of his behavior and deeply offensive to many, contributed to his firing. When speech has been a precipitating trigger leading to the reopening of an inquiry into conduct, the consequences of such a probe unavoidably redound back to the expression that set the inquiry in motion.

Without clear indications that offensive speech forms part of a pattern of harassing conduct, the expression of controversial or even offensive views should not be the impetus for the university to dissect unrelated behavior going back decades or to reopen formal investigations of previously adjudicated conduct.  If that becomes the norm, institutions risk becoming environments wherein speech is technically protected, but objectionable speech becomes a catalyst for reprisals for other conduct that would otherwise have gone unpunished.  In such circumstances the protection of speech is significantly weakened, and there exists a powerful disincentive for expressing views that may give rise to reproach. 

What’s at stake, in a word, is the right to dissent:  freedom of thought and freedom of speech for members of Princeton’s on-campus community, especially when what is being questioned is the reigning—or incoming, or rapidly consolidating—orthodoxy.

That orthodoxy, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 and the heartfelt protests and outrage and, yes, riots and looting that swirled across America in the weeks that followed, was the new religion of antiracism, one accompanied by an exquisitely heightened consciousness of racial difference, strident invocations of privilege and “allyship,” and a still-in-process set of radical demands.  In Victor Navasky’s terms, liberalism and its gradualist, meliorative horizons had been routed by the left, which had taken to the streets and owned the streets.  On July 4, a sizeable subset of Princeton’s faculty bodied forth this new orthodoxy in a lengthy, 48-point manifesto, a “Faculty Letter” addressed to President Eisgruber and his administration demanding—the word “demand” and its variants showed up seven times—that Princeton “become, for the first time in its history, an anti-racist institution.”

When I first set eyes on the letter, perhaps a week after it was issued, I was unaware that Katz had just published his explosively controversial reply.  But my initial response as I worked down through the itemized list--apart from his singling out of the Black Justice League, a group I knew of only vaguely—was, I would discover later, quite similar to his:  a mix of qualified support (“Sure, seems like a reasonable idea”) and incredulity bordering on alarm at the way in which several specific demands, if actualized, threatened to transform Princeton into the academic equivalent of China during the Cultural Revolution, a place where each faculty member’s words and actions would be subject to stringent review in a way that struck me as ripe for overreach and potential abuse:

11. Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.

Several weeks before encountering the Faculty Letter, even while striving to make sense of what that letter would call the “massive global uprising in the name of racial justice” that Floyd’s death had precipitated, I’d come across Sam Harris’s podcast, “Can We Pull Back From the Brink?,” with its scrupulous, data-based, point-by-point questioning of the emergent narrative around supposedly endemic police violence against unarmed black men.  Harris had, almost inadvertently, introduced me to an array of brilliantly heterodox black thinkers whose writings and podcasts I had begun exploring with great interest:  Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Coleman Hughes, Kmele Foster.  The perspectives they offered and the ethos they modeled—calm, fearless, inquisitive, discerning—inspired me.  Their ability to think through the moment we were in and speak it freely helped me cope with the fact that, pervaded by an unfamiliar fear, the fear of one too cowed to dissent publicly or even ask reasonable questions, I’d temporarily lost my own voice.

Later, with their help, the fear would ebb and I’d find my voice again, writing and publishing an essay, “White Antiracist Allies in Training:  My Social Justice Workshop Troubles (and Yours),” about the problematics of a 2003 workshop I’d attended as an academic researcher, long before DEI administrations at corporations, universities, and government offices across America had begun to demand that you and your fellow citizens submit to “training” of a sort that only two decades earlier had been the province of a tiny activist vanguard.  And then, long after the fact, I came across Katz’s July 8, 2020 essay in Quillette, “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor,” and began to follow the progress of his case.

Katz’s essay strikes me now as an astonishingly brave and needed—and, yes, foolhardy and intemperate—act of dissent, issued at a moment and in a context where no other professor I know would have had the chutzpah to take a stand.  His grudging embrace of certain line items in the July 4 Faculty Letter and his forthright critiques of others are both justified and discerning.  But they are not what got him into trouble.  Here I want to speak directly to his most reviled and picked-over paragraph, which concerns the Black Justice League.

The BJL, at the moment when Katz wrote of it, was a defunct student organization, no longer active on campus—which is to say that his critique was directed at alumni, not students currently enrolled at the university, and was an acerbic response to one specific demand in the faculty letter:

“Acknowledge, credit, and incentivize anti-racist student activism. Such acknowledgment should, at a minimum, take the form of reparative action, beginning with a formal public University apology to the members of the Black Justice League and their allies.” The Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, was a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands. Recently I watched an “Instagram Live” of one of its alumni leaders, who—emboldened by recent events and egged on by over 200 supporters who were baying for blood—presided over what was effectively a Struggle Session against one of his former classmates. It was one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed, and I do not say this lightly.

When I first read this passage in Quillette, and knowing little of the Black Justice League except the fact that they’d once staged an overnight sit-in in President Eisgruber’s office and handed him a list of demands, I took Katz’s “terrorist organization” slur as I presumed he intended it to be taken:  as the hyperbole of a man fed up with the way that social activists sometimes force the issue, discomfiting the rest of us in the process.  A needless provocation, I thought—one that devalued the word “terrorist,” much as leftists have diminished the potency of the word “Nazis,” by applying it imprecisely, over-broadly.  As for the Instagram Live struggle session claim:  having been subjected myself in 2003, in an all-white context, to a smaller-scale version of this social ritual, silenced by two facilitators before being showered with criticism, one person at a time, by a circle of activists-in-training, I had no trouble taking Katz at his word.  I had seen that sort of evil in action.  The facilitators in my case, women in their late 40s, were so concerned by what they had set loose in the room that they yanked their little experiment to a halt and apologized to me.

One point that became apparent as I began to research the BJL was that they had responded with particular aggressiveness to black students who disagreed with them, viewing that dissent as a kind of racial treason.  The Daily Princetonian’s 2020 two-part history of the BJL hints at this dynamic, quoting former BJL members Joanna Anyanwu ’15, Trust Kupupika ’17, and Destiny Crockett ’17:

Anyanwu said that while she could bear criticism and hatred from non-Black students and faculty, dissent from Black students who did not agree with the BJL’s methods or demands hurt much more.

“Friendships were falling apart,” said Kupupika. “A lot of Black students would say stuff like, ‘How dare you speak for me?’ ‘How dare you call yourselves the Black Justice League?’”

Crockett echoed this sentiment. 

“I think the most painful backlash and the most frustrating backlash has not been from white students and not been from administrators; it has always been from Black students,” she told the ‘Prince’ in 2017.

But as Professor Robert George clarified while moderating an alumni panel, “The Fight For Free Speech at Princeton and Beyond,” held during Reunions this past May, members of the BJL responded to the pain engendered by that perceived betrayal by lashing out in ways that substantiate Katz’s basic claims:

[Katz, in his Quillette essay,] was referring specifically to the… persecution of black students by people in the Black Justice League because those black students wouldn’t go along.  They were dissenting.  I marched a young woman, a young black woman who was a dissenter from the Black Justice League program, and a critic, who came under ferocious attack, I marched her over to [Vice President for Campus Life] Rochelle Calhoun’s office….to explain to Rochelle how she was being treated.  The smears that she was enduring; the threats—“We will make sure you never get a job anywhere”; the intimidation.  Being referred to by them as Aunt Jemima.  She laid the whole case out in front of Vice President Calhoun, and to her very great credit, Vice President Calhoun made it stop.  But it’s a special burden on our minority students who do dissent to speak up.

 

The 350-odd members of Princeton’s faculty who signed the July 4, 2020 letter find it far easier to indict “anti-Black racism” on the Princeton campus and beyond than to acknowledge this sort of inhumane and anti-democratic behavior within BJL’s own ranks—behavior that stands at an unimaginable remove from the compassion and soul-force that animated Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, and the BJL’s own patron saint, Ella Baker.  And they, along with Princeton’s current administration, would have us condemn and excommunicate Joshua Katz, by any means necessary, for calling such illiberal behavior to account.

            Does calling a black female undergraduate at Princeton “Aunt Jemima” and threatening her with “We will make sure you never get a job anywhere” qualify as terrorism?  The former slur is an odious reminder that old-school bigotry still occasionally rears its head on campus; the latter threat, as any student of the civil rights movement knows, was one of the prime tactics used by the White Citizens’ Councils in the late 1950s and early 1960s to intimidate and punish black Mississippians who tried to register to vote.  Both behaviors are something Princetonians concerned with racial justice should be decrying, not engaging in—or, for that matter, eliding from the tendentious, activist-approved history of racism at Princeton conveyed by the “To Be Known and Heard” website.

            Here’s the question I’m ultimately forced to wrestle with:  Why would I want my son, a biracial son of Mississippi who wears his mixed identity with grace and a palpable lightness of spirit, to attend the Princeton that Princeton has become?  Would he truly thrive there?  Would he think for himself?  Would he be allowed to think for himself?  Or, stepping afoul of those who keep racial score, would he be insulted, hounded, excommunicated—criticized for his “proximity to whiteness” and abrogation of a compelled “allyship”?  What values, ultimately, would those he encountered on campus, including his professors and the administrators who oversee them, encourage him—or pressure him—to uphold? 

 

Adam Gussow is a Professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. His most recent book is Whose Blues? Facing Up to Race and the Future of the Music (UNC Press, 2020)

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