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.” At the heart of the controversy is Katz’s reaction to an Instagram Live video that readers can’t see; even The Daily Princetonian, which knows the identity of at least two participants, was not able to see it. I haven’t seen it.
You may think that “terrorist” is insensitive (I do), or you may deem it (as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board does) a clear and simple case of hyperbole, though Katz has since doubled down and defended his metaphorical (not hyperbolic) use of the adjective. 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. That some of his objections to the faculty letter might be legitimate, and that they should be engaged with seriously, is out of the question. (English professor Andrew Cole’s recent piece in this paper, which sketches a thoughtful and substantive defense of anti-racist research oversight, dismisses unattributed concerns about academic freedom as “curious indirection,” “abstract,” and “not really about academic freedom.”)
To seize on the weakest part of an argument to avoid the strongest parts is pure sophistry, unworthy of serious intellectuals — yet this is exactly what we see among Princeton students, alumni, and faculty in the ‘Prince’ articles covering the University’s response to Katz.
It’s also bad faith. According to one of the letter’s top signatories, classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06, Katz’s “flagrant racism makes our case for us.” Four names down, African American studies professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. GS ’97 asserts that Katz “seems not to regard people like me as essential features, or persons, of Princeton,” adding, “That’s the feeling I got from reading [his] letter.”
This is an enormous accusation, and it is utter slander. Glaude may “feel” that way, but Katz neither says nor implies anything of the sort. I challenge Glaude, or anyone, to find one passage in the “Declaration” that shows Katz thinks Black people (if this is the group Glaude means) don’t belong at Princeton. The faculty quoted are professional readers and writers, but in this situation, they seem to have suspended their critical faculties. At least, that’s the feeling I got from reading their responses.
In general, Katz’s opponents as quoted in the ‘Prince’ show a positive desire to see the worst in him, which is gratified only by appeals to dubious logic and unsubstantiated feelings. Is it really dangerous to allow him to teach gateway Classics courses? That’s quite a thing to say about a decorated and wildly popular instructor who takes teaching so seriously. Is it really “hypocritical” of him to administer a scholarship that rewards students with unpopular beliefs, while also disagreeing with particular beliefs that happen to be unpopular — or would such a role really require his approval of all unpopular opinions, however extreme? How about the sinister character attack that implies there’s something wrong with Katz’s watching a public video event, then publicly denouncing behavior he finds disturbing?
Katz, for his part, has insisted on his colleagues’ right to voice their disagreement. He has substantive concerns about the faculty letter’s demands which, however, do not prevent him from singling out several demands which he thinks reasonable and supports. He states, “Racist slurs and clear and documentable bias against someone because of skin color are reprehensible and should lead to disciplinary action, for which there is already a process.” It really takes a certain kind of willful misreading to ignore these aspects of Katz’s piece.
Katz’s critics appear rather more eager to show that he is right-wing, even equivalent to Donald Trump, than to understand and engage with his positions. The ‘Prince’ itself paints Katz — who describes himself as “an old lefty” — as part of a vanishingly small, conservative minority on campus: “Katz’s column has received public support from conservative commentators … but little public support among University faculty.” (The piece then cites professor Robert George, who tweeted Katz’s article approvingly.) With unfortunate understatement, the piece notes that Katz’s concerns “resonated with at least one other University community member” (emphasis mine).
Even the fact that the “Declaration” is published by Quillette counts against Katz, as though ideas were automatically vitiated when sharing a space with other, objectionable ideas. Perhaps one should note that Katz’s opinion pieces have frequently appeared in the ‘Prince.’
Creative writing professor Tracy K. Smith accuses Katz of “taking his lead from Donald Trump” and categorizes the opinion piece as “race-baiting, disguised as free speech.” Nothing can be disguised as free speech. This comment implies (in the strong sense of the verb) that only some speech is free, and that is precisely the basis of a serious, meaningful objection to the faculty letter. Does Smith really believe that Katz is trying to incite racial discord?
In response to Katz’s worry that the committee to screen faculty activities for racism would be a “star chamber with a low bar for [punishment],” Glaude explains, “There’s always this question of whether liberty trumps justice.” An uncharitable reader might think that Smith and Glaude are using anti-liberal dog-whistles (or “bullhorns,” to borrow a word used of Katz’s diction) to attack fundamental values of American life such as “free speech” and “liberty.”
Glaude further makes light of Katz’s concern: “there’s this feeling that somehow there’s going to be a committee in some dark room policing the thoughts of Princeton faculty. As if that’s what we’re talking about. He’s more interested in that than in having a more just Princeton.”
Katz evidently disagrees about what constitutes justice in this case, and thinks this difference is worth discussing. As to the crazy idea that he’s in danger of being policed: two of the students cited in the ‘Prince’ articles support a “formal inquiry” into an opinion piece he published, while the University seems to be “looking into the matter further.”
It’s bad faith to treat Joshua Katz as a pariah, a racist, a Trump surrogate, and so on because one doesn’t want to engage with his objections. It’s embarrassing for professional readers to expose themselves as willful misreaders and to show such disregard for the very idea of debate. I myself can think of some solid, left-wing reasons to support the demands to which Katz objects, as well as some solid, left-wing reasons to reject them — but that’s not the conversation we’re having.
Smith says that Katz’s article “can’t simply be brushed off as ‘friendly debate,’ because it’s not … It’s not coming from a place of good faith.” If she feels that way: how about some good faith all around?
Nicholas Bellinson ’13 is a Tutor at St. John’s College (Annapolis) and an Instructor in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago. He can be reached at Nicholas.Bellinson@sjc.edu.