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Bad Takes: Unpacking the truth around the University of Austin and its roster of 'cancelled' academics

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Allusions to collegiate totalitarianism are a delusionally bad take. - UNSPLASH / DOM FOU
  • UnSplash / Dom Fou
  • Allusions to collegiate totalitarianism are a delusionally bad take.
Bad Takes is a periodic column of opinion and political analysis.

"What a country, and what a culture, when the liberals cry before they are hurt, and the reactionaries pose as brave nonconformists." — Christopher Hitchens, Politically Correct, 1991

Before there was "woke," there were "identity politics," "social justice warriors," "liberal snowflakes," "virtue signaling," "cancel culture" and the still ever-popular "political correctness." As with "frivolous lawsuits," "Satanic rock records" and "violent video games," just enough of those left-of-center among us buy into these moral panics, expertly instigated by right-wing provocateurs, so that the very terms of the national conversation shift underneath our feet and mainstream public opinion winds up swallowed by sandworms.

Into this fray enters the University of Austin, a proposed liberal arts college set to open in Texas' weird ol' capital city next year. It's been billed as something of an Island of Misfit Toys for free-thinking and misunderstood professors whom the academic establishment has tossed aside for violating "woke" orthodoxy.

Though not yet accredited or offering any degrees, a phalanx of "anti-PC" champions have rapidly mustered under its banner. As we'll explore, two savvier terms to add to the lexicon above may help sniff out UATX's true purpose: "the cancel culture grift economy" and "student panic industrial complex."

Prospective students would also be smart to keep one hand on their wallet. A rogues' gallery of "the cancelled" comprises the current UATX staff. There's economic historian Niall Ferguson, unapologetic apologist for British imperialism and war criminals such as Henry Kissinger. There's quasi-journalist Bari Weiss, who preens herself as a defender of academic freedom while vilifying Arab professors who criticize Israel - then denies having done so. And don't forget freelance bloviator Andrew Sullivan, who revels in making false accusations about United Nations ambassadors and Sesame Street muppets. Given that rogue's gallery, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker had the good sense to recently jump ship.

To say there are high hopes for the start-up would understate its grandiose mission. One Founding Trustee asked in all quixotic seriousness, "Can the University of Austin spark a new Enlightenment?" I'll take the under-bet on that.

Mild-mannered commentator David Pakman was atypically acerbic in his reaction to America's newest university. He broadcast the following "Grift Alert": "The drama around the false belief that academia is just worthless liberal trash, and that there needs to be something like this — again, not accredited, doesn't even offer degrees — just seems like something you can pay for to get classes that might not be that different from the Substacks of these people. So for now, calling this a university and saying this is in any way an alternative to actual universities seems deceptive and like a complete and total grift."

At present UATX certainly looks as legit as PragerU or Trump University. Indeed, the faculty showcases many familiar faces from the Intellectual Dark Web and the horribly misnamed Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism. But considering the threat posed by "illiberal leftism" today, aren't drastic measures called for? In its official announcement — via Weiss's Substack, of course — President Pano Kanelos wrote, "We had thought such censoriousness was possible only under oppressive regimes in distant lands."

First, a quick public service announcement. "Censorious" derives from the root word "censure," not "censorship." When folks complain about "the censorious left," they're simply saying we're nitpicky and hypercritical, not that we're hellbent on prohibiting free speech. The word they're searching for is "censorial." Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Allusions to collegiate totalitarianism are a delusionally bad take. Geophysicist Dorian Abbot, for example, was not disinvited from a prominent climate talk because he "objected to aspects of affirmative action," as Kanelos framed the controversy. Abbot was disinvited in part because he wrote affirmative action exhibits the same genocidal logic that enabled "the atrocities of the 20th century." Quote: "Ninety years ago Germany had the best universities in the world. Then an ideological regime obsessed with race came to power and drove many of the best scholars out." Yes, that's what most of us instantly associate the Nazis with — their uncompromising commitment to racial diversity and inclusion.

Run down any one of the supposedly live grenades hurled by left-wing mobs on college campuses and, upon closer inspection, you'll find a dud. As arch-conservative David Brooks admirably conceded, this is trumped-up "anecdotalism." He made no friends among his right-of-center brethren last week with his frank coverage of the National Conservatism Conference:

"The NatCons are wrong to think there is a unified thing called 'the left' that hates America. This is just the apocalyptic menace many of them had to invent in order to justify their decision to vote for Donald Trump. They are wrong, too, to think there is a wokeist Anschluss taking over all the institutions of American life. For people who spend so much time railing about the evils of social media, they sure seem to spend an awful lot of their lives on Twitter - generalizing from three anecdotes about people who got canceled to conclude that all of American life is a woke hellscape. They need to get out more."

Though most students believe colleges should restrict the use of racial slurs, 99% of students regard free speech as important to our democracy. I'd put that percentage up against any convocation of Republican primary voters. 

Among the two million bachelor's degrees awarded in 2019, fewer than 8,000 were in cultural, ethnic or gender studies. Compare that to almost 400,000 degrees in business. Or tens of thousands in homeland security and law enforcement — fields in which I'm sure conservatives are duly concerned about providing equal time to leftists.

Ah, "ideological diversity" — that old chestnut. As if we're going to appoint a chair of astrology in the astronomy department to be fair to "both sides." Fact is, you're born Black; it's not an ideology one adopts. And when the student body does not look like the country or the world they're arriving from, we have reason to be suspicious. The University of Austin claims it "will not arbitrarily factor in race, gender, class or any other form of identity into its decisions. UATX stands firmly against that sort of discrimination in admissions.” So, what if by sheer randomness, the first day of class features a student body that's 100% well-to-do white males? How might that affect the colorblind pursuit of truth?

Happy to accept donations now, UATX's first pedagogical offering won't be until the summer of 2022, a class called "The Forbidden Courses," covering "the most provocative questions that often lead to censorship or self-censorship in many universities." Who will give the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory lectures, one wonders, since various states have forbidden both by law?

Admittedly, there's an on-going conflict between two paradigms of what the university should be: a marketplace of ideas — with great emphasis on the market — or a safe space for intellectual growth. The latter gets a bum rap, but college often serves as a place of refuge for people of color and gay and transgender youth, a way station between suffocating familial hometown prejudices and the looming weight of the working grind. Pampered academics raised in universities often forget what life is really like out here among the laity, where pronouns are the least of marginalized communities' worries.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Ronald Reagan, it's the students who are "paying for this microphone." Student debt is fast approaching $2 trillion. Isn't it reasonable that they would want some say in how these institutions are run? And parallels to Mao's Cultural Revolution notwithstanding, aren't we merely witnessing evolving standards of decency in action, as the global communications technologies in all our pockets allow everyone to voice their opinion?

Understandably, students may not wish to offer prestigious platforms they've spent hard money funding to daring proponents of "the unthinkable" and "the unmentionable," if that means Holocaust deniers, transphobes or white supremacists like Richard Spencer. And when will he be invited to teach at UATX, by the by?

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