Professor Joshua Katz’s “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor” has provoked impassioned debate — but not about the subject of his article. Katz, whom I was fortunate to have as a teacher, mentor, and advisor while at Princeton, pushes back against faculty demands, which he thinks “would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate.” Furor and condemnation have ensued, not for these objections but for his characterization of a defunct student group, the Black Justice League, as “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.” You may think that “terrorist” is insensitive (I do). What disturbs me is that the responses to Katz’s article seize on this and a few other phrases to smear Katz as a racist, ignoring most of his letter’s substance.
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Princeton classics professor Joshua Katz faces not just criticism for a controversial op-ed he wrote — but formal calls for the Ivy League university to punish him for it. Troublingly, while Princeton makes strong promises of free speech and academic freedom, the university’s public statements on the matter have suggested it may indeed be investigating or planning to punish Katz. To reassure faculty that they can express their views without fear of retribution, Princeton must immediately clarify that Katz’s views are wholly protected by institutional policy, and will not expose him to punishment.
I spent the majority of my childhood and young adulthood in China. China’s contemporary political history is of extraordinary relevance to our current moment because it is a lesson in historical revisionism. It lays bare the dangers of censorship and the importance of preserving an academy that studies history in its entirety, not just its dominant narratives. It is concerning to witness the frequency and frivolity with which calls for anti-racism by Princeton students and faculty are met with charges of censorship that seek to equate progressive activism with the tactics and intent of the Maoist “struggle sessions” that took place during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This false equivalence has been posited by Professor Katz in his recent Quillette article. In a similar spirit, the POCC compared anti-racist training to “re-education camps.”
White supremacy is literally wrong, a set of falsehoods about the inherent worth of Black people and other communities of color. It is a gross and willful misunderstanding of human history and culture. It is violent. It is deadly. When white supremacy masquerades as research and scholarship, it looks like eugenics, like phrenology, like the Tuskegee Study, like intelligence tests, like the Bell Curve, like the Troublesome Inheritance, like any number of white-washing histories of civilization, philosophy, religion, and literature that falsify arguments to the detriment of nonwhites. When these false premises are used to support or justify the discrimination against, or withholding of opportunities from, nonwhites, they become elements of a system of active injustice. Yet time and again whenever white supremacy is challenged, or whenever white privilege (which is a subtler form of white supremacy) is questioned, people suddenly start talking about academic freedom.
Take the university where I teach, Princeton. The campus—or at least the online campus, in the age of the coronavirus—has been in uproar since early July over a letter of demands to the administration signed by hundreds of my faculty colleagues, and especially over my response to that letter. I was immediately denounced on social media and condemned publicly by my department and the university president. At the same time, the university spokesman announced ominously that the administration would be “looking into the matter further.” It is therefore gratifying to report that Princeton’s leadership has done the right thing. I learned recently that I am not under investigation.
Powerful protests for racial justice and political change have taken our nation by storm. After many years of hard work and slow change, our world has shifted decades’ worth in days. Though the direction of this change is positive, with it comes a dangerous rise in illiberal attitudes, which has become apparent in the practice of smear-mongering. Last month, Civics Analytics dismissed former Obama campaign analyst David Shor, who had tweeted a paper written by Princeton politics professor Omar Wasow. In his research, Wasow found that violent protest had not electorally benefited the Democratic Party. By retweeting Wasow’s work, Shor was criticized for “using your anxiety and ‘intellect’ as a vehicle for anti-blackness.” Considering that the University sits at the heart of academia, the prospect of being denounced for sharing an academic paper should concern all of us.
When a Princeton classics professor wrote an article for the Quillette website taking issue with recent faculty demands over race, a storm of criticism descended. This was an opening for President Christopher Eisgruber and other university leaders to remind people that Princeton is a place where speech and debate are cherished. Instead, Princeton is demonstrating how a lack of leadership enables the cancel culture. The professor is Joshua Katz. [He]took issue with a petition sent to President Eisgruber signed by more than 350 faculty members. The faculty letter began with the statement “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America.” Mr. Katz’s capital offense was his description of the university’s Black Justice League as a “local terrorist organization.” This hyperbole has given critics an excuse to denounce Mr. Katz without addressing his argument.
Five days after its publication, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 joined a growing chorus of faculty, students, and alumni in publicly condemning professor Joshua Katz for a column in which he characterized the Black Justice League (BJL), a student activist group, as a “terrorist organization.” “While free speech permits students and faculty to make arguments that are bold, provocative, or even offensive, we all have an obligation to exercise that right responsibly,” Eisgruber said in a statement to The Daily Princetonian. “Joshua Katz has failed to do so, and I object personally and strongly to his false description of a Princeton student group as a ‘local terrorist organization.’ By ignoring the critical distinction between lawful protest and unlawful violence, Dr. Katz has unfairly disparaged members of the Black Justice League, students who neither threatened nor committed any violent acts,” Eisgruber added.
In his recent opinion piece, in the wake of years of discourse on the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, Akhil Rajasekar ’21 paints a picture of what he, on behalf of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), believes to be the state of free speech on campus. He assures us, however, that with the aid of POCC’s efforts we can achieve what he says we need: a “thoughtful conversation on significant, deeply personal issues like race, identity, and culture.” Unfortunately, Rajasekar both misunderstands the nature of free speech and seeks to marginalize the voices of those who have, through years of effort, carried the campus discourse on race and Wilson’s legacy to its current juncture.
At my alma mater, Princeton University, hundreds of faculty, staff, and graduate students have signed a petition demanding the university “take immediate concrete and material steps to openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive on its campus.” The petition includes a long list of “demands,” several of which stand in direct opposition to Princeton students’ and faculty members’ rights to free speech, academic freedom, and freedom of conscience. (Notably, one of them — a demand that faculty of color receive extra pay and sabbatical time compared to white faculty — is simply illegal.) Princeton’s leadership should categorically reject these illiberal demands.