On campus, the worst is yet to come

Review of Nevergreen by Andrew Pessin, 2021, Open Books

Andrew Pessin, the author of the comic novel Nevergreen (to be published September first), is a professor of philosophy at Connecticut College. He ignited the furies among the student body at his college over his support for the state of Israel. That experience informs his newly published novel about a doctor invited to give a talk at a fictional college facing the campus lynch mob. The book is titled to evoke the infamous case of Bret Weinstein of The Evergreen State University.  Weinstein was hounded out of his professorship and eventually collected a quarter-million-dollar settlement from the University for the outrageous treatment he experienced.  In both the Weinstein and Pessin incidents, there were serious threats of physical harm to the “offending” professors and administrators who did nothing to defend or protect them.

Nevergreen manages to capture the passions unleashed at the two real colleges (and many others in the past few years). In the novel, a physician who goes by J (his wife clarifies it is Jeffrey near the end), meets a woman on a plane while en route to a medical conference. He gets invited by the woman to speak at the school where she works, Nevergreen College, after his conference is concluded.  Nevergreen College is built on a small island where an asylum was once located, and inmates were buried, an ominous metaphor and portent.

J delivers his talk though no one is there to hear it. However, he soon becomes the focus of those who hate “the hate” he represents to them, which includes pretty much everyone on campus.  The campus gatherings directed at J, are longer than the daily two minutes hate in George Orwell’s 1984 and include campus newspaper attacks, and posting of his picture everywhere, including on masks worn by students hunting him down.

What did J do to deserve this? He may have demonstrated “the hate” with the way he looked at a student, though no one lays out his crimes for him.  There is nothing worse at Nevergreen than to exemplify or be an accused practitioner of “the hate.” Somehow, a look he gave someone or his talk, which was not seen nor heard, has put his life at risk. The novel describes the harrowing time J has on the island as he is pursued by a bloodthirsty mob who have been alerted to his presence, his “crimes,” his hate, and the need for decisive action.

Nevergreen is a picture of a dystopia. No one can be trusted. J has no real friends or allies to protect him or shelter him until he can escape the island on one of two daily ferry trips.  He appears at times to have some defenders or helpers, but those appearances are only that. The groups who are after him largely adhere to one point of view, that of the conventional ever-woke social justice warriors.  Those who want to take J down are part of “the resistance.”

Naturally, there are anti-resistance people too. These opposition groups seem to exist more to be contrary than because of any real commitment to a point of view. We are not dealing with an exchange of ideas and scholarship or a defense of Western civilization and its mores.  A group dressed as confederate soldiers seems to feel some solidarity towards J, but it is not real or lasting. Other alternate groups, such as meat-eaters, are not much better.  The passion for taking J out is stirred by campus-wide pronouncements and all campus meetings, but some of the passion seems to dissipate in sex, drinking of some college-specific concoction, or exhaustion. If there is serious study of anything at Nevergreen at any time during the day or night, it is hard to find.

While the description above suggests a horror story, Pessin’s book is often very funny in the absurdity of the passions which drive the student and their actions. The book is in some ways a collection of the oddest student protests or demands heard on various campuses over the last few years. A student dragging around a mattress, for example.

Humor aside, the book describes a lunatic asylum, disguised as an institution of higher education. The fierce anger shared by a large majority of students (faculty too), and the identification and pursuit of targets is, unfortunately, not just the author’s invention. It should be no surprise that colleges and universities which increasingly resemble Nevergreen, are playing a major role in creating a generation of young people with authoritarian instincts, intolerant of those who think differently or do not step up to make the obligatory statements of support for the cause of the day or week.   American individuality is being snuffed out as colleges and their enforcers, dictate ideological and behavioral conformity.  Of course, parents who never disciplined their children share some responsibility for the monsters on the loose in Nevergreen, since it is highly unlikely that colleges alone, in but a few short years, could generate all the venom on display.

Nevergreen has connections to Franz Kafka’s The Trial since J, like the accused in the Kafka novel, has no idea exactly what he has done wrong when first accused and there appears to be nothing he can do to clear his name, or just get on with his life. In J’s case, staying alive becomes the goal, and in this he succeeds. Kafka’s accused, Josef K, fares less well in the end. There is an absurdity in being hunted down for something you may have done to offend someone or a large group, but which is never revealed. But there is also terror involved in navigating your way in such an environment.  Do you apologize for something you do not know you did or for doing nothing which should have offended anyone?  To avoid the judgment of the always judgmental, people become afraid and quiet, and others sign up with the mob because it is safer, even if one is not an adherent.

Nevergreen no longer has any athletic teams. But if it did, the teams could play as “The Hate.” This would be appropriate for a college training its students to emote about what they think they “know,” and aiming fire at those who refuse to know and are, therefore, members of the group to hate.

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