Artillery Row

Tolerance in America: what the resignations of Katz, Weiss & Sullivan tell us

Two journalists and an academic call for the end of censorship and intolerance

There is a new and very disturbing voice in British and American culture. It is prevalent in more and more humanities departments in our universities, in the media and on social media. It dominates much of the discussion, especially on the Left, about several recurring issues: race and the history of slavery and colonialism, transgender people, and Israel and antisemitism. People who speak out against it are considered unacceptable as colleagues and teachers. They should be censored or in a new word, symptomatic of our times, ‘cancelled’.

In the last two weeks three Americans, one academic and two journalists, have spoken out against this atmosphere of censorship

In the last two weeks three Americans, one academic and two journalists, have spoken out against this atmosphere of censorship. Two have defended freedom of speech in letters of resignation, one from the New York Times, another from New York Magazine. The third has responded to a petition recently circulated at Princeton. None of these three responses seem especially controversial or right-wing in their content. Because they are all Americans, their interventions have not received the attention they deserve in the UK but what they say is as relevant to the situation here as in the US.

On 8 July, Joshua T. Katz, a classicist at Princeton, wrote what he called ‘A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor’. It was written in response to a ‘Faculty Letter’ to the president and other senior administrators at Princeton University, signed by hundreds of academics, students and alumni. Curiously, the signatories from humanities and social sciences outnumber those from mathematics, the sciences and engineering by 2:1.

Katz describes himself as ‘a linguist by training, a classicist by profession, and a comparative philologist at heart.’ He studied at Yale, Oxford and Harvard and has taught at Princeton for over twenty years.

According to Katz,

‘[T]here are dozens of proposals, that, if implemented, would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate. Some examples: “Reward the invisible work done by faculty of color with course relief and summer salary” and “Faculty of color hired at the junior level should be guaranteed one additional semester of sabbatical” and “Provide additional human resources for the support of junior faculty of color.” Let’s leave aside who qualifies as “of color,” though this is not a trivial point. It boggles my mind that anyone would advocate giving people—extraordinarily privileged people already, let me point out: Princeton professors—extra perks for no reason other than their pigmentation.’

Katz quotes another passage from the ‘Faculty Letter’ which calls on senior administrators at Princeton to “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… Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the [usual] set of rules and procedures.” ‘This,’ writes Katz,

‘scares me more than anything else: For colleagues to police one another’s research and publications in this way would be outrageous. Let me be clear: 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. But is there anyone who doesn’t believe that this committee would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal?’

Professor Katz concludes,

‘Independence of thought is considered the hallmark of academia, but everyone deserves it. In the United States, thank heavens, freedom to think for oneself is still a right, not a privilege.’

At the heart of Katz’s ‘Declaration of Independence’ is his concern with ‘independence of thought’ at Princeton and in America at large. The Daily Princetonian soon published a response signed by almost a hundred graduate students and alumni condemning Professor Katz’s Declaration for ‘its demonization [sic] of student organizers, its belittlement of faculty members in their support of anti-racism, and its flippant dismissal of efforts to combat systemic racism at Princeton while minimizing the very presence of that racism itself.’ He allegedly ‘misgendered one of the alumni leaders of the Black Justice League, but the main criticisms of Katz’s Declaration are:

‘Considering that this declaration comes in response to a faculty letter on anti-Blackness [sic] at Princeton, spearheaded by Black faculty and addressing a history of exclusion and gaslighting against Black students and faculty, it is disturbing that Katz reserves the word “evil” for the students who championed these changes, rather than for racism itself. Not only is the content of this declaration poorly conceived, but it is also an attempt to distract from the necessity of making anti-racist changes throughout the University as a whole.’

A week later, on 15 July, the journalist Bari Weiss posted her resignation letter from The New York Times . Weiss has been writing for The New York Times for three years. She joined the Times from The Wall Street Journal, ‘with the goal of bringing in voices that would not otherwise appear in your pages: first-time writers, centrists, conservatives and others who would not naturally think of The Times as their home.’ The timing was not accidental. She was hired soon after Trump’s electoral victory. ‘The paper’s failure to anticipate the outcome of the 2016 election,’ she writes,

‘meant that it didn’t have a firm grasp of the country it covers. But the lessons that ought to have followed the election—lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.’

Weiss felt an outsider at the Times. She became, she writes,

‘the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m “writing about the Jews again.” Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are.’

There is a larger point at the heart of Weiss’s letter. It’s not just her experience that concerns her. The Times has created an intimidating atmosphere for

‘independent-minded young writers and editors paying close attention to what they’ll have to do to advance in their careers. Rule One: Speak your mind at your own peril. Rule Two: Never risk commissioning a story that goes against the narrative. Rule Three: Never believe an editor or publisher who urges you to go against the grain. Eventually, the publisher will cave to the mob, the editor will get fired or reassigned, and you’ll be hung out to dry.’

Two days later, on 17 July, Andrew Sullivan wrote a letter announcing his resignation from New York Magazine. This isn’t because of the quality of his work, he writes. What has happened is relatively simple:

‘A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I’m a luxury item they don’t want to afford. And that’s entirely their prerogative. They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space. Actually attacking, and even mocking, critical theory’s ideas and methods, as I have done continually in this space, is therefore out of sync with the values of Vox Media. That, to the best of my understanding, is why I’m out of here.’

He links the growing intolerance in print media with what’s increasingly happening in American universities:

‘Two years ago, I wrote that we all live on campus now. That is an understatement. In academia, a tiny fraction of professors and administrators have not yet bent the knee to the woke program — and those few left are being purged. The latest study of Harvard University faculty, for example, finds that only 1.46 percent call themselves conservative. But that’s probably higher than the proportion of journalists who call themselves conservative at the New York Times or CNN or New York Magazine.’

All three writers call for an end to intolerance in leading American publications and universities. Independent thought is being stifled. Dissenters are purged or, if they stay, abused. These are not marginal institutions. Princeton is one of the world’s outstanding universities. The New York Times is one of its leading newspapers.

The pieces by Joshua Katz, Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan, all calling for tolerance and an end to intimidation, are hugely important. They are among the most significant statements in the new culture wars as voices for liberalism and decency start to fight back against intolerance and censorship. These articles would have been inconceivable a few years ago. They are signs of a growing cultural crisis in Britain and America.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover