The Star Chamber of Stanford: On the Secret Trial and Invisible Persecution of a Stanford Law Fellow

Read my review here.

I’ve emailed every professor referenced in this new book by lawyer and philosopher Rony Guldmann with messages along these lines:

I’ve been reading a hilarious new book…

I’m trying to figure out for a blog post what is real in the book and what is mental illness and so I’m reaching out to everyone featured in the book for their perspective.

Rony writes in the book that the Stanford Law home page was sending him messages for about 18 months as part of a systematic gaslighting by the liberal elite. I wondered if you were part of some deep dark conspiracy to do discursive violence (I don’t know what that is but Rony keeps referencing it) and microaggressions against Rony?

In retrospect, I see that my wording was shoddy.

Professor Joshua Cohen responds:

Thanks for the note. Not sure what the question is, but here are a few thoughts:

1. I remember Rony some from when I was at SLS: I had a 25% appointment, so most of time was spent elsewhere, in poli sci and philosophy. He took a course from me and we had some conversations about a ms. he was writing on conservative claims about cultural oppression. I vaguely recall not being as enthusiastic about it as some colleagues. But the one thing I can say confidently is that it left no lasting impression.

2. I am not sure why you think he suffers from mental illness: I certainly did not think anything like that at the time. I found him kind of ponderous, but . . . also sharp and thoughtful.

3. I am not sure if your question about my involvement in some micro-aggressive conspiracy and microagressions is intended seriously and literally. If it is seriously and literally intended, then the answer is an easy ’no.’ If it is not seriously and literally intended, then I am not sure what you are asking.

University of Chicago Philosopher Martha Nussbaum responds to my inquiry: “I never wrote an article on that topic [see anecdote below]. My only articles on the Pre-Socratics are a two-part article on Heraclitus in 1972 and an article on argumentative strategy in Philolaus in 1975… When I was writing about the Pre-Socratics, during my grad school days, postmodernism did not even exist. …So [this disgruntled conservative professor] was mistaken or joking. Not a nice joke if so.”

Luke: “How often does the scenario happen in academia in your experience? Do you hear complaints and long-lived resentments about these things?”

Martha: “I have no idea since I am not on any social media. Nobody has made such an accusation to my face or within the knowledge of my colleagues.”

“I hate postmodernism and would never even consider writing about it (except in my highly critical review of Judith Butler), and I cannot see what possible connection postmodernism might have with any of the Pre-Socratics (who of course are not an “it” but a highly diverse and conflicting group of individual philosophers). In any case I lost interest in the Pre-Socratics by 1980 and have never taught or written about them since. I can’t imagine why anyone would even ask me about them, since the articles I published in the 70’s are very technical and unknown to anyone not a technical classical scholar. The whole thing is weird.”

One professor tells mes: “This [UCLA] prof (Joseph Manson) is so right on about academia. But read a publication like the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and you will experience an alternative, unreal universe.”

Professor Lawrence Solum responds: “Luke, Sorry, I have not read the book or heard of it before your email… Thanks [for the excerpt I emailed him]. I’m not planning to read the book.”

Here are some highlights from this new book:

* If my colleagues were guilty of anything, it was being creatures of their place and time, agents of the dominant dispensation and civilizational identity. Their interests and prejudices were broadly those of their class, the chattering class—also known as the “New Class” or “knowledge class” or “cognitive elite”—whose clandestine illiberalism it would fall upon me to expose and chronicle.

* I fancied that I was superior to my circumstances such that they would yield to me and not I to them.

* “Intellectuals who write with vigor and clarity are as scarce as low rents in New York or San Francisco. Raised in city streets and cafes before the age of massive universities, “last” generation intellectuals wrote for the educated reader. They have been supplanted by high-tech intellectuals, consultants and professors—anonymous souls who may be competent, and more than competent, but who do not enrich public life.” (Russell Jacoby)

* I accepted Nietzsche’s counsel that “it is very advisable to examine and dissect the men of learning themselves for once, since they for their part are quite accustomed to laying bold hands on everything in the world, even the most venerable things, and taking them to pieces.”

* Conservatives such as [Victor Davis] Hanson come eagerly to the defense of “tea-baggers” and the Palins because they resent liberals for having ushered in and entrenched an unofficial social hierarchy that credentials liberals as self-aware, reflective, and cosmopolitan while stigmatizing conservatives as benighted, parochial, and authoritarian, turning them into a socially denigrated Other perennially exposed to the scorn and derision of the dominant liberal culture. In advancing this unspoken agenda, liberals contravene their own professed commitment to equality, tolerance, and openness, vilifying conservatives much as the latter stand accused of vilifying blacks, gays, and other historically disfavored minorities. The liberal elites are so privileged that they need never confront this hypocrisy, however. Having seized the reins of academia, the courts, foundations, the bureaucracies, media, Hollywood, public schools, and corporate human resources departments, liberals occupy the commanding heights of the culture, whence they malign conservative voices as mindless reaction or pathology, in supercilious contempt for the heartfelt values of authentic, salt-of-the-earth ordinary Americans, who must be discredited by any means necessary. Liberalism isn’t merely a family of policies or principles but a totalistic cultural ethos that with each passing year encroaches ever further upon the lives of those ordinary Americans. As Thomas Frank wryly puts it in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, conservatives believe liberalism is “in power whether its politicians are elected or not.” Liberalism is “beyond politics, a tyrant that dominates our lives in countless ways great and small, and which is virtually incapable of being overthrown.”

* Rightly or wrongly, conservatives feel perennially under the heel of the liberal jackboot, and I wanted to understand why.

* But a mainstay of left-liberal thought is that sundry forms of white, male, or heterosexual privilege blind us to pervasive subterranean inequalities, which norms passing as neutral then naturalize as the ineluctable fabric of things. Was it not conceivable, then, that liberals were themselves blind to the social inequality from which conservatives claim to suffer? If there can be a subterranean white male privilege, why not also a subterranean liberal one? Liberals’ alleged “conservaphobia” may not be as strident as right-wing polemicists make it out to be, but another mainstay of left-liberal thought is that racism, sexism, and homophobia need not be overt or conscious. These bigotries are said to operate below the threshold of awareness, on an insidious structural level that outruns the beliefs and intentions of individual actors. I couldn’t discount the possibility of an anticonservative bigotry that works along similar lines. If there can be a structural racism, why not also a structural liberalism that oppresses conservatives despite their formal political equality?

* The Left wielded a sophisticated critical theory in its ceaseless battles with racism, sexism, homophobia, and bourgeois philistinism. I aspired to propound a critical theory of the Right whose deconstruction of the Left would mirror the Left’s deconstruction of the wider society, and especially conservatives, by laying out the conservative grievance with a degree of intellectual probity that liberals couldn’t reflexively dismiss.

* The relationship between a faculty adviser and an academic job seeker is akin to that between a great power and a small client state. It is the academic job seeker who derives tangible material benefits from the alliance—a tenure-track job—since it’s the faculty adviser’s phone calls to colleagues at other schools that separate a résumé from a stack of hundreds. The faculty adviser has an interest in expending these efforts because the empowerment of the client state redounds to the prestige and prominence of the great power. The more Stanford Law graduates are teaching at law schools, and especially illustrious ones, the stronger becomes Stanford’s standing in the competition with other great powers—Yale, Harvard, Chicago, and others. When Stanford wins, so does its faculty.

* I summarized for the class the views of Amy Wax, a controversial conservative from Penn Law who had recently visited the law school to debate same-sex marriage with the liberal Stanford professor Pam Karlan. Wax argued that while conservatives’ ill-articulated apprehensions about the perils of same-sex marriage seem unfounded to liberals, these “vague premonitions of erosion and unraveling” may be reliable indicators of the subtle shifts in mores that normalizing homosexuality could presage.8 “Traditional values” may be illusory or subjective in some ultimate metaphysical metaphysical sense; even so, they are vital to the moral identities of many everyday people. Same-sex marriage may not threaten heterosexual marriage in any direct, obvious way, but cumulatively it can erode the frameworks of moral meaning that sustain vital human conventions.

* Entranced by logic and syllogism, liberals embrace same-sex marriage as a rational extension of their universalistic commitment to equality and so consign reservations about it to the same low moral dustbin as disgust with miscegenation. Conservatives are less concerned with the syllogistic entailments of universal principles, however, and are instead attuned to what cold logic fails to capture, the subtle, often irrational, springs of human motivation that precariously undergird social cooperation. These do not necessarily respect the abstractions of liberal rationalism, but they are real all the same. Larry breezily dismissed this line of argument as ridiculous, or something to that effect, thus confirming Wax’s lament that liberals have no time for conservatives’ conservatives’ sociological worldview, which is foreign to liberals’ more atomistic and economistic outlook. My term paper presentation later in the semester was also met with a certain incredulity. Folks didn’t dismiss my musings as ridiculous, but Joe was mildly distressed that I should be giving so charitable a hearing to perspectives that he and the rest of the class deemed hateful. Larry seemed to feel the same way. I concluded the talk by likening my own methodology to that of Stephen Colbert, who also spoke ironically in a conservative voice. But Larry demurred that the comparison wasn’t really apt. Colbert was angling to subvert conservatism whereas I was lending it intellectual credibility, which wasn’t offset by my ironic tone.

* She distilled my driving intuition as the sense that “there is something indeterminate to liberalism,” meaning that what liberals presume is the only valid application of their principles may simply be a parochial cultural preference, with another equally defensible interpretation inuring to the conservative cause. The key to the project, she advised, was to explain just why conservative claims of cultural oppression amount to more than hollow ad hominems against the banal human foibles of liberals. Another crucial question, she stressed, was why liberals seem less agitated than conservatives by difference and dissent. Liberals appear unconcerned with how their next-door neighbors go about their lives, whereas conservatives can feel threatened by this, perceiving phantasmal assaults on order and decency everywhere. Is this ostensible asymmetry reality or a social illusion? Like Joe, Barbara was at once incredulous of and fascinated by conservative claims of cultural oppression. Her instinct was to discount conservatives as benighted authoritarians, but she was receptive to my still-inchoate sense that the liberal consensus was one-sided and simplistic and hoped I could explain her unease to her.

* The sociologist Alvin Gouldner observes that the cosmopolitan New Class of well-schooled, left-leaning knowledge workers is predisposed “toward an unhealthy self-consciousness, toward stilted convoluted speech, an inhibition of play, imagination and passion, and continual pressure for expressive discipline.”19 That continual pressure is most fundamentally the secularization of an age-old religious drive, an intellectualized variant of the traditional spiritual aspiration to rise above animal impulse toward a purified state of heightened self-possession and self-control.

* Hence, my claim in the introduction that scholarliness is no less a hero-system than the cruder and more transparent ideologies of the Right. The elites despise the vulgar traditionalism of social conservatives. But their own, more rarefied, traditionalism leaves them implacably hostile to the unregulated freedom of the tacit dimension, whose indeterminate and inarticulate nature occupies a place analogous to the sexual libertinism that offends the Right. The tacit dimension is a libertinism of the intellect, a realm of uninhibited personal impulse unfettered by the exogenous strictures of academic professionalism, whose renunciatory impulses are what dictate “a totally anonymous style and choice of topics as a matter of professional honor,” as Midgley says. This aspiration to impersonality harbors a religious meaning, promising redemption from the original sin of intellectual idiosyncrasy as expressed in the solitary intimations of the tacit dimension.

* [Mary] Midgely observes: “Officially, we can enquire about anything. In fact, in any academic area, current traditions ensure that only certain quite limited limited tropes and methods will be accepted. Officially, the reasons for these limitations are impersonal, rational, clearly statable, and ready to be changed at any time if good reason is given. Actually, they have all kinds of other sources as well as these acknowledged ones—a background web of obscure and complex historical causes, involving notably clashes of personality and feuds with neighbouring studies. They are very resistant to deliberate attempts to change. Much of this rigidity, too, is certainly not impersonal because it results from the individual temperaments of the people involved. … Much academic conceptual apparatus is designed to insulate specialties from outside interference.”

* The New Class’s lumbering machinery of argumentation may seem validated by the fact that its stewards do generally exhibit greater argumentative sophistication than is commonly found among intellectual freewheelers personally invested in big questions—who may indeed just reinvent the wheel without knowing it. But every status quo manages to generate evidence in its own support. As Foucault observes, “Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth,” discourses that it “accepts and makes function as true.”23 The ideologies of academia are made to function as true because, as with any artificial social hierarchy, scholarly supremacy acts to systemically debilitate all who would challenge it.

* My driving intuition was that the liberal culture’s official facade of outward tolerance is informally circumscribed by a subterranean background of clandestine coercions, threats, and stigmas that cumulatively enshrine certain parochial mores as bedrock reality. But giving real life to these words required deprogramming myself from that culture, as I couldn’t expose that in which I was myself implicated. The covert sectarianism of the liberal elites would be visible only from the outside, and I wasn’t yet standing there.

* Midgley observes: “It is an awkward fact, often overlooked in this concentration on clarity, that familiar, accepted ideas always tend to seem clearer than unfamiliar ones, whether they actually are so or not. The clarity of an argument depends on its relation to the relevant premises. But in real life (as opposed to mathematics) most of the premises of an argument are unstated, and many of them have never even been made explicit. The real need is somehow to become conscious of this mass of hidden premises, and to pick out for attention the ones that matter most. But this process takes time, during which things seem to become more confused. If clarity is one’s sole aim, it can be reached much faster by refusing to consider any premises except those that have already occurred to one as leading to one’s chosen conclusions. This simplifying of the premises is what many people think of as a “rational” approach, and it is just what gives the notion of rationality such a bad name that people are quite happy to say that they prefer to be irrational. In philosophy teaching, it leads to a flat, dogmatic insistence on the current fashionable approach as the only possible professional path.”

* Russell Jacoby: “Universities encourage a definite intellectual form. They do not shoot, they simply do not hire those who are unable or unwilling to fit in. Even Henry Luce of the Time magazine empire, often denounced as a master propagandist, employed and even liked mavericks and dissenters. Universities, on the other hand, hire by committee: one needs degrees, references, the proper deference, a pleasant demeanor. To win over a committee that recommends to a department which counsels a chairman who advises a dean who suggests to a college president takes a talent very different from gaining the assent of a single individual.”

* Colleges and universities are the “finishing schools” of the New Class.

* David Brooks wrote that intellectuals “compete to gain a monopoly over the power to consecrate”: “Certain people and institutions at the top of each specialty have the power to confer prestige and honor on favored individuals, subjects, and styles of discourse. Those who hold this power of consecration influence taste, favor certain methodologies, and define the boundary of their discipline. To be the chief consecrator is the intellectual’s dream.”

* [Alvin Goudner:] “The New Class, then, is prepared to be egalitarian so far as the privileges of the old class are concerned. That is, under certain conditions it is prepared to remove or restrict the special incomes of the old class: profits, rents, interest. The New Class is anti-egalitarian, however, in that it seeks special guild advantages—political powers and incomes—on the basis of its possession of cultural capital.”

* The elites are willing to attack existing distributions of economic and political power in the name of greater equality and general human welfare. But, as a cultural bourgeoisie, they treat unequal divisions of cultural capital as sacrosanct and will repress any who would attempt to accrue it in disregard of the distributive status quo. Discourse that respects that status quo—by acquiescing to the lingos, conceptualizations, and lines of inquiry that define “the field”—is serious. Discourse that slights it by proceeding from a different set of starting points and perplexities is not.

* [Russell] Jacoby observes: “Like any quantitative study of reputation, the [citation] index is circular. It measures not the quality of work but clout and connections. If used to evaluate careers, however, the lessons for the striving professor are clear: cast a wide net, establish as many mutual relations as possible, do not isolate yourself from the mainstream. It pays not simply to footnote but to design research to mesh smoothly with the contributions of others: they refer to you as you refer to them. Everyone prospers from the saccharine scholarship.”

* Dissecting the core values of Homo academicus, [French sociologist Pierre] Bourdieu highlights the sublimated and intellectualized conservatism of academia’s gatekeepers, the liberal elites: “There is no acknowledged master who does not recognize a master and, through him, the intellectual magistrature of the sacred collegeof masters who acknowledge him. In short, there is no master who does not recognize the value of the institution and institutional values which are all rooted in the institutionalized refusal of any non-institutional thought, in the exaltation of academic “reliability,” that instrument of normalization which has all appearances on its side, those of learning and those of morality, although it is often only the instrument of the transformation of individual and collective limits into the choice of scientific virtuousness.”

In discerning my potential to become an eminent legal scholar, Joe was holding out the prospect that I might eventually ascend to the rank of “acknowledged master.” But in insisting that my research first be tied in with that of colleagues, he was also reminding me, with Bourdieu, that “there is no acknowledged master who does not recognize a master and, through him, the intellectual magistrature of the sacred college of masters who acknowledge him.” The knockout email was the culmination of my repeated refusals to bow before this magistrature. Joe’s and Barbara’s guidance had always been advice for doing so, for exhibiting “academic ‘reliability.’” If their respect-cum-fascination had now deteriorated into suspicion and ire, this was owing to the ingratitude with which I had discounted their Janus-faced counsels. What would heeding them have required of me? Barbara’s reaction to the Overview would have been rather more sanguine had my summaries read something like this:

“Professor X has recently introduced a fascinating new framework through which to address Problem A in an effort to replace the approach that has been most famously defended by Professor Y, arguing that this not only provides fresh, multidisciplinary insight into Problem A but also sheds a new and intriguing light on Problem B, which Professor Z first brought to our attention in his rigorously argued and thoroughly researched book C. But Professor Z’s book, C, in fact anticipated, and raised serious reservations about, the approach now being defended by Professor X in response to Professor Y. This article argues that while Professor Z’s reservations have substantial merit, the force of those concerns is attenuated to the extent we (plausibly) interpret Professor X as supplementing rather than supplanting the analysis of Professor Y. Thus conceived, the questions introduced by Professor X promise not only to enrich our understanding of Problem A but also to open up new avenues of interdisciplinary research into Problem B that build on those painstakingly developed by Professor Z, because Problem B, properly understood, is just another facet of Problem A.”

In pleading with me to acknowledge the intellectual magistrature of the sacred college of masters, Joe was saying that I could eventually become Professor X but only if I first attended to him in this genteelly interstitial manner, because that was how he got to where he was.

[LF: Every group has a language and a code. If you want to succeed with a group, you have to speak their language and follow their code.]

[LF: Pages 202 to 215 are a conspiracy theory that the arrangement of photos on the Stanford Law home page, unchanged for 18 months, was primarily designed to send the author a message.]

* I was, therefore, Barbara’s bad moral luck, because I had generated conditions under which impulses that ordinarily pass as unproblematic were abruptly transmuted into imaginable legal exposure. “Liberal fascists,” Jonah Goldberg writes, conceal the latent “totalitarian temptations in their hearts.” And my deviance had smoked out those temptations by compelling Barbara to more openly express the academic ideology that routinely passes under the radar as the natural order of things… Other professors at Stanford and elsewhere had never faced such misfortune, for they’d never faced the bad moral luck of a tangle with me.

* As Norbert Elias observes, “Civilization, and therefore rationalization, for example, is not a process within a separate sphere of ‘ideas’ or ‘thought.’ It does not involve solely changes of ‘knowledge,’ transformations of ‘ideologies,’ in short alterations of the content of consciousness, but changes in the whole human make-up, within which ideas and habits of thought are only a single sector.”1 I was addressing conservatives (and liberals) as people and not just as opinion holders because I had posited that our conceptions of religious neutrality bespeak “the whole human make-up,” reflecting the degree to which the disciplines and repressions of the liberal culture have molded consciousness. That is why conservative culture warriors treat liberalism as “beyond politics,” as Thomas Frank observes.

* The conservative understands himself, like Kafka’s Josef K. in The Trial, as a man “who wakes up to find himself hounded by the Court for a crime the nature of which he cannot be given to understand.”

* Investigating “how professors think” in the context of academic panels superintending prestigious interdisciplinary grants, the Harvard sociologist Michèle Lamont observes: “In this context, a muted expression of enthusiasm can signal disapproval, and any more damning criticisms may be made allusively. Frowning, rolling one’s eyes, sighing, blushing, and talking through clenched teeth are certainly actions that can be as powerful as words. And objections that are not fully articulated dampen debate because they are not amenable to contestation. Fortunately, such behaviors are much more easily controlled in the context of a two-day panel than they can be in, say, departmental deliberations, which occur regularly, have a history, and can be shaped by folk stories about past conflicts, interpersonal hatreds, and the like.”

* In Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression I review Chris Mooney’s contention in The Republican Brain that conservatives are disposed to seize on whatever isolated bits of information confirm their preconceptions and then freeze their thought process to shield it from countervailing evidence.3 The truth, though, is that we all freeze according to how our identities interface with the specific contingencies before us. Liberals are not categorically more open-minded than conservatives. Both are subject to distinctive identity-affirmation requirements, which are what precipitate the freezing. To the extent conservatives appear more cognitively rigid, that is owing to circumstance, not inherent disposition.

This essential symmetry was borne out in my experience. I had met up with an old high school chum and our former high school history teacher over the Thanksgiving break. As conservatives wary of academia, they had little difficulty accepting my report of the shenanigans transpiring at Stanford. Though peculiar and improbable, the shenanigans were congruous with the arrogance and duplicity that they associated with the liberal elites. The uncanniness of it all wasn’t lost on them, but that uncanniness resonated with their ordinary sense of things at some deep level. In contrast, the liberals in my midst harbored greater reverence for prestigious institutions like Stanford, which they admired as embodiments of their own highest virtues. As a result, they would respond not just with skepticism but by pathologizing my beliefs as symptoms of some mental disturbance.

This was fully consistent with my thesis, according to which liberals will discard their reputed tolerance and critical thinking whenever these virtues conflict with their “secular, scientific, and civilized” hero-system, as Becker would say. Liberalism is a particularistic cultural dispensation that celebrates certain human types as civilized, reflective, and rational while stigmatizing others as barbarous, unthinking, and fearful. This was the lens through which liberals routinely viewed my situation. “Stanford Law professor = humanistic and enlightened” and “people who think websites are transmitting coded messages to them = nuts” were these skeptics’ axioms of thought, in whose light my cool and dispassionate dialectic had to be dismissed as hollow mental gymnastics. I held to my claims only because they survived the test of falsifiability. But having caricatured my devotion to scientific rigor as paranoia and conspiracism, these interlocutors were not buying my findings and would wave away my talk of falsifiability as highfalutin gibberish, a mere castle in the air, one more sign that I had taken leave of my senses.

* The conspirators knew full well the nature of my epistemic oppression, for they had engineered the latent discursive violence that enforced it. The dazzling cunning of their enterprise was to dangle a patina of hope that my lifelong dream might somehow be salvaged while gaslighting me ever further into a self-enclosed conceptual vortex whose rational foundations were invisible to the naked eye.

* The conservative culture warrior Angelo Codevilla laments that “the notion that the common people’s words are, like grunts, mere signs of pain, pleasure, and frustration, is now axiomatic among our Ruling Class.”

* Now myself oppressed by the elites, I was becoming versed in the conservative pathos firsthand—on a more highly intellectualized and individuated level, perhaps, but the existential nub of it was the same. The shadow world of the unofficial reality meant that I, too, would now look upon liberalism as “beyond politics, a tyrant that dominates our lives in countless ways great and small, and which is virtually incapable of being overthrown”—the conservative weltanschauung according to Thomas Frank.

* However minimal their legal exposure may have been, their efforts on this front were more minimal still—a little tinkering with the home page, a few lines in an email, some chitchat about informal networking. The sheer unpleasantness of litigating against a current fellow and former student sufficed to justify their efforts here, as would the negative publicity of a law school lawsuit. The statute of limitations for defamation in California was only a year. The more time elapsed between the under lying events and any legal reprisals, the weaker my position became. Dragging things out served the conspirators’ legal interests well. They had a professional duty to minimize the law school’s exposure—legal or otherwise, real or conceivable—and the quid pro quo was how they discharged that duty under these most unusual of circumstances.

* With Napoleonic arrogance, I attempted to snatch up the crown that my advisers would have bestowed upon me, placing it on my own brow. In doing so, I materially breached the social contract of academia, usurping the magistrature’s consecratory authority in a repudiation of Bourdieu’s law that “everyone depends on everyone else, at once his competitor and client, his opponent and judge, for the determination of his own truth and value, that is, of his own symbolic life and death.”

* Torn between my rational cognition, which validated the unofficial reality, and my residual cultural cognition, which endeavored to disabuse me of that reality, I had to struggle not to succumb to self-doubt lest I internalize my epistemic oppression.

* Bourdieu observes: “The establishment of durable relations of authority and dependency is based on waiting, that is, the selfish expectation of a future goal, which lastingly modifies—that is, for the whole period that the expectation lasts—the behavior of the person who counts on the thing expected; and is based also on the art of making someone wait, in the dual sense of stimulating, encouraging, or maintaining hope, through promises or skill in not disappointing, denying or discouraging expectations, at the same time as through an ability to inhibit and restrain impatience, to get people to put up with and accept delay, the continuing frustration of hopes, of anticipated satisfactions intrinsically suggested behind the promises or encouraging words of the guarantor, but indefinitely postponed, deferred, suspended.”

* There was, then, but one way to wiggle my way out of my subaltern status as one “most lacking in symbolic capital,” and that was to mint symbolic capital out of my very oppression, a tried-and-true strategy in modern America.

* I would be left with only the nuclear option should Stanford fail to give me an out.

[LF: There are always more options. “Out” here means a job. Stanford has given him a generous two year fellowship and $120,000, but if they don’t get him a job, then his only alternative is to sue?]

* Early June was also when I embarked on the much-ballyhooed Alaska cruise with my mother and brother. Maintaining good relations with Mom had become vital, as she was coming under the influence of my brother and others who imagined I was descending into some heretofore undocumented mental disorder. Indeed, they had organized conference calls around my condition and run my interpretation of the home page past lawyer friends.

[LF: If the people who know you best think you’re nuts, that means little. People put others in a box for their own peace of mind and then they become disturbed when it is painfully obvious that the box doesn’t fit.]

* As I was to learn on the cruise, these discourses had upset my mother, who now demanded an accounting of why I had thus far in life failed to secure permanent employment—first in philosophy, then at a law firm, and now at a law school.

* Richard Hofstadter observes of the conspiracist mindset: “Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He is a free, active, demonic agent. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history himself, or deflects the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on the bank, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys the profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is in this sense distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.”

* …Federalist Society’s Academic Job Talk Workshop. The special challenges facing right-of-center academics in liberal-dominated law schools would be a recurring topic of conversation. The society had scheduled a special panel discussion on the subject, but the lamentations would suffuse the entire schedule. One professor advised that, though a conservative, he was a registered Democrat because that was how to exert influence in Chicago politics. He also proclaimed that conservatives enjoy better relations with their children than do liberals. Interestingly, a fair number of the workshop organizers weren’t conservatives at all but rather liberal Democrats sympathetic to their plight, like white freedom riders joining their black brethren in a struggle for equal dignity.

* Moving on to campus life, we were advised that fellows should limit themselves to raising one question every three faculty luncheons. Untenured faculty should limit themselves to every other luncheon. Only tenured faculty had license to speak up weekly.

* The importance of watching one’s words was stressed repeatedly. A workshop organizer related that she had nearly lost out on a job after scorning the dog of Cass Sunstein, a famous legal scholar then at the University of Chicago. This bespoke an ingrained disdain for all canines, not a particularized antipathy for Sunstein’s pooch specifically, she explained, but the distinction was initially lost on Sunstein, who had been wounded. They’re on good terms now—I think—but perhaps not as good as they’d be if she loved dogs in general and Fido in particular.

* Pierre Bourdieu: “The whole trick of pedagogical reason lies precisely in the way it extorts the essential while seeming to demand the insignificant: in obtaining the respect for forms and forms of respect which constitute the most visible and at the same time the best-hidden (because most “natural”) manifestations of submission to the established order, the incorporation of the arbitrary abolishes what Raymond Ruyer calls “lateral possibilities,” that is, all the eccentricities and deviations which are the small changes of madness. The concessions of politeness always contain political concessions.”

* Joe and Barbara imagined they were demanding only “the concessions of politeness.” They had taken me under their wings, enabling me to pursue my passion and sparing me the travails of sweatshop hours in a big law firm. In exchange they were hoping for a modicum of deference to their superior experience, wisdom, and expertise. And I had indeed withheld that modicum. But for cause, I submit, because tendering it would have involved a “political concession” to the cultural pathologies of liberalism and academia. Penning a book review or attending a seminar weren’t necessarily all that laborious. But cumulatively such endeavors would have acculturated me to the New Class ethos and its “respect for forms,” instilling me with the “expressive discipline” and scholarly gravitas that the still-subconscious telos of my research agenda called on me to subvert. The road not taken might have yielded a cleaner and timelier job-talk paper. But the truth of conservative claims of cultural oppression would then have adhered to me only, as Schopenhauer says, “as an artificial limb, a false tooth, a wax nose does,” not as a natural appendage that could truly interface with the world.

* That “this electronic age is rife with opportunities for generating unintended consequences” was the risk the conspirators had myopically minimized when they resolved to deploy set 1 [a grand conspiracy against the author] and hide the quid pro quo in plain sight. Ten months had now elapsed since my “informal networking” chat with Dick, and it was increasingly apparent that I would be left with no recourse but to leverage the home page to spawn the “unintended consequences” that the conspiracy had so smugly discounted.

* Justice Antonin Scalia: “When the Court takes sides in the culture wars, it tends to be with the knights rather than the villeins—and more specifically with the Templars, reflecting the views and values of the lawyer class from which the Court’s Members are drawn. How that class feels about homosexuality will be evident to anyone who wishes to interview job applicants at virtually any of the Nation’s law schools. The interviewer may refuse to offer a job because the applicant is a Republican; because he is an adulterer; because he went to the wrong prep school or belongs to the wrong country club; because he eats snails; because he is a womanizer; because she wears real-animal fur; or even because he hates the Chicago Cubs. But if the interviewer should wish not to be an associate or partner of an applicant because he disapproves of the applicant’s homosexuality, then he will have violated the pledge which the Association of American Law Schools requires all its member-schools to exact from job interviewers: “assurance of the employer’s willingness” to hire homosexuals. … This lawschool view of what “prejudices” must be stamped out may be contrasted with the more plebeian attitudes that apparently still prevail in the United States Congress, which has been unresponsive to repeated attempts to extend to homosexuals the protections of federal civil rights laws.”

* He [Scalia] was in agreement with Roger Scruton that what the elites cast as a clash “between dark intolerance and enlightened reason” is really “nothing more than a clash of prejudices”; the difference is that “one side frankly admits that the feelings it brings into this dispute are moral, [whereas] the other hides its bigotry behind a mask of reason, serenely expecting to carry the day.”

* When conservatives deny the persistence of widespread racism and attribute racial disparities in wealth and social status to dysfunctional family structures, criminality, or disdain for education, the left-liberal rejoinder is that these self-defeating behavior patterns, to the extent they are truly widespread, are themselves attributable to various forms of racism, including a “white culture” that stacks the deck against minorities by conditioning upward mobility on assimilation to culturally alien norms.5 In this vein I’m claiming that the deck was always stacked against me by an academic ethos that celebrates certain intellectual virtues to the unjustified detriment of others, in the interests of those privileged by this historically contingent cultural dispensation.

* As Jacoby observes, “Universities encourage a definite intellectual form.” The naturally obeisant thrive, provided the other desiderata of academic flourishing—smarts, work ethic, and luck—are in place.

* I could no more internalize the New Class ethos of expressive discipline than a naturally effeminate gay man could be expected to start vocalizing like John Wayne.

* Harvey Mansfield: “We must not look at public and private statically as a distinction that never changes; we must remember that the public emerges from private, latent interests or opinions that find expression. The public, the political, needs to be asserted; what is public now was once asserted, what will be public in the future will be asserted against what is public now.”

Feminism and its politicization of the personal are a case in point.

* Liam Gillespie delineates the nature of this domination: The habitus therefore not only confers unfair levels of sociocultural privilege upon certain individuals (through the bestowal of cultural capital), it also invisibilises this privilege. As a result, the struggle to change the socio-cultural conditions of the habitus is inherently difficult. This is because dominant subjects are able to exercise their dominance merely by conforming to the status quo and by “being themselves,” while those who are dominated must effect a rupture of the habitus from within the habitus itself. Put differently, within the habitus, the dominance of dominant subjects appears “objective.” The dominant can just “be,” while the dominated must first “clear the way” before they can “be.”

* [Mark Kelman] was in set 1, in cahoots with Larry in Think Like a Lawyer, a good pal of Joe and Barbara’s, and above all another Jew in a largely Jewish conspiracy.

* I eventually found myself seated by a professor who thought it fitting to occupy the table’s attention with complaints about how Martha Nussbaum—a grandee of law and philosophy—had pilfered an idea for an article he had proposed they coauthor. He had suggested they collaborate to explore the pre-Socratics’ affinities with postmodernism, and she just ran off and wrote up the paper all on her own. I listened attentively and tried to feel his pain. The truth, though, was that the universe was big enough for two more articles on the pre-Socratics and postmodernism. Nussbaum was guilty of petty larceny at worst, assuming his version of events was true. Nothing kept him from authoring another such article himself if he had something to say. Indeed, he could have penned a response to Nussbaum. The proposal was, moreover, importunate and parasitic, given that Nussbaum surely had more to say when it came to ancient Greek philosophy.

* My calculated, farseeing gambits to harvest evidence of the unofficial reality were now being cast as a paroxysm of wanton trolling. Such is the nature of power, which entrenches conditions under which the oppressed and marginalized are railroaded into discrediting behaviors, so that their very resistance to the dominant order ends up legitimizing it. As Foucault says (see chapter 1), “Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth,” discourses that it “accepts and makes function as true.”

* From the beginning, I had styled myself the prophet of conservative claims of cultural oppression, allowing this obsession to run roughshod over all else.

* “The individual cripple or bastard has virtually no subjective defense against the stigmatic identity assigned to him. He is what he is supposed to be, to himself as to his significant others and to the community as a whole. To be sure, he may react to this fate with resentment or rage, but it is qua inferior being that he is resentful or enraged. His resentment and rage may even serve as decisive ratifications of his socially defined identity as an inferior being, since his betters, by definition, are above these brutish emotions. He is imprisoned in the objective reality of his society, although that reality is subjectively present to him in an alienated and truncated manner. Such an individual will be unsuccessfully socialized, that is, there will be a high degree of asymmetry between the socially defined reality in which he is de facto caught, as in the alien world, and his own subjective reality, which reflects that world only very poorly. The asymmetry will, however, have no cumulative structural structural consequences because it lacks a social base within which it could crystallize into a counter-world, with its own institutionalized cluster of counter-identities. The unsuccessfully socialized individual himself is socially predefined as a profiled type—the cripple, the bastard, the idiot, and so on. Consequently, whatever contrary self-identifications may at times arise in his own consciousness lack any plausibility structure that would transform them into something more than ephemeral fantasies.”

* The [Stanford Law] home page was a high-tech lynching…

* “The intellectual is thus, by definition, a marginal type. … His social marginality expresses his lack of theoretical integration within the universe of his society. He appears as the counter-expert in the business business of defining reality. Like the “official” expert, he has a design for society at large. But while the former’s design is in tune with the institutional programs, serving as their theoretical legitimation, the intellectual’s exists in an intellectual vacuum, socially objectivated at best in a subsociety of fellow-intellectuals. … Just as the withdrawing intellectual needs others to assist him in maintaining his deviant definitions of reality as reality, so the revolutionary intellectual needs others to confirm his deviant conceptions. This requirement is much more basic than the obvious fact that no conspiracy can succeed without organization. The revolutionary intellectual must have others who maintain for him the reality (that is, the subjective plausibility in his own consciousness) of the revolutionary ideology.”

* As with liberals generally, the skeptics’ operative assumption was that conservatives are animated by powerful identitarian, and hence potentially authoritarian, psychic compulsions that do not similarly afflict liberals—who uphold only rational, secular goods validated by hard-nosed audits of tangible human welfare. Hence, the skeptics’ inability to envision my advisers’ targeting me as alleged, which derived from their broader inability to think of liberals as driven by identity, by a socially constructed hero-system delivering Ernest Becker’s “feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning.”

The received wisdom tells us that whereas conservatives are captive to identity, liberals enjoy a higher consciousness (or “wokeness”) that transcends all hero-systems. That rancorous conservatives direct subterranean dog whistles against their enemies goes without saying, but the well-lettered freethinkers of Stanford could never sink to this level. Learned liberals living by the light of reason would never gaslight when they are, like Carl Becker’s Enlightenment philosophers, “emancipated ones, looking out upon a universe seemingly brand new because so freshly flooded with light, a universe in which everything worth attending to is visible, and everything visible is seen to be unblurred and wonderfully simple after all, and evidently intelligible to the human mind.”

* The elites’ cognitive hierarchy between the enlightened and the benighted is merely a secularized narrative of salvation and sin, a hero-system masquerading as the transcendence of all hero-systems.

Hero-systems are socially cultivated webs of meaning production that symbolically exalt their adherents above the merely physical, contingent, and animal. As outgrowths of hero-sys tems, liberalism and conservatism share the essential conservatism of all such systems, of all identity preservation. But because they are sub limated and intellectualized, the hero-systems of the liberal elite are more readily camouflaged in the secular and pragmatic, allowing their true animating impulses to pass under the radar. Their primary outlets lie in various professional enclaves that serve to privatize the elites’ own rarefied brand of conservatism—dedicated to the conservation of their own symbolic capital. Christopher Lasch observes:

“The culture wars that have convulsed America since the sixties are best understood as a form of class warfare, in which an enlightened elite (as it thinks of itself) seeks not so much to impose its values on the majority (a majority perceived as incorrigibly racist, sexist, provincial, and xenophobic), much less to persuade the majority by means of rational public debate, as to create parallel or “alternative” institutions in which it will no longer be necessary to confront the unenlightened at all.”

The “parallel or ‘alternative’” hero-systems of the liberal elites are comparatively self-contained, governed by internal norms that benighted outsiders are ill-credentialed to impugn. Because they are cruder and more exposed to public view, the more pedestrian hero-systems of conservatives are vulnerable to forms of scrutiny to which their privileged counterparts on the Left are generally impervious. Perforce, all such systems spawn a distinctive panoply of authoritarian and hierarchical impulses. But those of conservatives are more easily recognized as such, giving the liberal elites an unearned reputation for superior moral courage. That courage will typically falter in spheres that implicate the elites’ own identities, where their ideological opponents will be “conceptually liquidated” with an efficiency that conservative culture warriors cannot muster.

* As Gouldner observes of the New Class and its culture of critical discourse (CCD): “CCD treats the relationship between those who speak it, and others about whom they speak, as a relationship between judges and judged. It implies that the established social hierarchy is only a semblance and the deeper, more important distinction is between those who speak and understand truly and those who do not. To participate in the culture of critical discourse, then, is to be emancipated at once from lowness in the conventional social hierarchy, and is thus a subversion of that hierarchy. To participate in the culture of critical discourse, then, is a political act.”

* Liberals’ “conservaphobia” is the corollary of a hero-system predicated on a cognitive as opposed to religious, ethnic, or economic hierarchy. Whatever the ostensible issue, the elites are dramatizing “a relationship between judges and judged” in a bid to operate one level up. This superciliousness is couched in a utilitarian facade, as a pristinely rational response to the documented perniciousness of a fossilized traditionalism. But conservatives are well attuned to the performative dimension of liberal discourse and the subterranean identitarian satisfactions it affords its participants—at conservatives’ unacknowledged expense.

* Conservatives feel culturally oppressed because the liberal elites’ dominion over the means of cultural reproduction positions them to entrench this New Class hierarchy “between those who speak and understand truly and those who do not” and then dismiss conservative resistance to that hierarchy as mindless reaction, reptilian fear and aggression to be exposed, chastened, and subdued by more sophisticated souls. Having anointed themselves the guardians of reason and enlightenment, the liberal elites guard this lofty perch with a regime of microaggressions calculated to browbeat and silence resisters. So conservatives naturally feel worked over and gaslighted, weighed down with a “not-to-be-taken-seriously cognitive status.” Protest though they may, they will find their grievances classed as symptoms of inner conflicts that exasperated liberals alone can diagnose.

* The conspiracy [against the author] was properly classed as a liberal conspiracy because its motivations arose from the same disciplinary impulses that also animate a gamut of politically liberal attitudes, which demand the inhibition of a whole suite of default human impulses that now offend against enlightened sensibilities.8 The elites’ moral crusades may succeed in uprooting certain bona fide prejudices. But they uproot much else in the process and are ultimately galvanized by something more basic and all-encompassing than moral opposition to bigotry: a fundamental drive to reform the unruly masses into rational, productive citizens immune to flights of moral, religious, or intellectual fancy. As Charles Taylor observes, for modern elites the lower orders are “not [to be] left as they are, but badgered, bullied, pushed, preached at, drilled, and organized to abandon their lax
and disorganized folkways and conform to one or another feature of civil behavior.” To this end, these elites will “apply a single model or schema to everything and everybody” in an effort to “eliminate anomalies, exceptions, marginal populations, and all kinds of non-conformists.”

* The elites can be liberal on sundry social issues, castigating the hidebound horizons of others, because they are never required to extend their live-and-let-live attitudes into the specific milieus where their own identities operate.

* The elites may operate one level up. But as Nietzsche observes, “almost everything we call ‘higher culture’ is based on the spiritualization of cruelty, on its becoming more profound,” and that profundity had now been encapsulated in my Stanford Law saga.10 The spiritualized cruelty that befell me was human through and through. The liberal elites are simply privileged to indulge in sublimated iterations of human nature’s default impulses even as they exhort their social inferiors to rise above those impulses’ cruder variants toward a higher humanity.

Detractors will say I should be grateful for having been admitted to Stanford and receiving the fellowship rather than presume to lecture the law school professoriate. Perhaps, but I note that conservative culture warriors feel much the same way about immigrants of color so ungrateful as to issue left-wing criticisms of American society—a sentiment that professoriate will roundly condemn as xenophobic.

* I wound up standing in the same relationship to the traditional values of academia as liberal academics do to those of conservative ordinary Americans. By taking the ethos of liberalism to its logical conclusion, I inflicted on the elites what was just the mirror image of the cultural oppression they relentlessly mete out to the ordinary American. “Professionalism silently installs the New Class as the paradigm of virtuous and legitimate authority,” notes Gouldner. But the unprofessional path of the fellowship had uncovered contingent power relations where the elites would see virtuous authority and deterministic social structures where they would see individual agency and desert. As Gouldner also observes:

“The culture of critical discourse must put its hands around its own throat, and see how long it can squeeze. CCD always moves on to auto-critique, and to the critique of that auto-critique. There is an unending regress in it, a potential revolution in permanence; it embodies that unceasing restlessness and “lawlessness” that the ancient Greeks first called anomos and that Hegel had called the “bad infinity.””

* William Barrett observes: “As a human being, functioning professionally within the Academy, the philosopher can hardly be expected to escape his own professional deformation, especially since it has become a law of modern society that man is assimilated more and more completely to his social function. And it is just here that a troublesome and profound ambiguity resides for the philosopher today. The profession of philosophy did not always have the narrow and specialized meaning it now has. In ancient Greece it had the very opposite; instead of a specialized theoretical discipline, philosophy was a concrete way of life, a total vision of man and the cosmos in the light of which the individual’s whole life was lived. These earliest philosophers among the Greeks were seers,
poets, almost shamans—as well as the first thinkers. Mythological and intuitive elements permeate their thinking even where we see the first historical efforts toward conceptualization; they traffic with the old gods even while in the process of coining a new significance for them. … Even in Plato, where thought has already become more differentiated and specialized and where the main lines of philosophy as a theoretical discipline are being laid down, the motive of philosophy is very different from the cool pursuit of the savant engaged in research. … The ancient claims of philosophy are somewhat embarrassing to the contemporary philosopher, who has to justify his existence within the sober community of professional savants and scientists. The modern university is as much an expression of the specialization of the age as is the modern factory. Moreover, the philosopher knows that everything we prize about our modern knowledge, each thing in it that represents an immense stride in certainty and power over what the past called its knowledge, is the result of specialization. Modern science was made possible by the social organization of knowledge. The philosopher today is therefore pressed, and simply by reason of his objective social role in the community, into an imitation of the scientists: he too seeks to perfect the weapons of his knowledge through specialization. Hence, the extraordinary preoccupation with technique among modern philosophers, with logical and linguistic analysis, syntax and semantics; and in general with the refining away of all content for the sake of formal subtlety.”

* Templars will dismiss all these apologetics with sighs of exasperated impatience, wearily rejoining that, be this as it may, academia has certain known rules of the road that I freely admit having flouted and that all these airy ruminations do not affect this bottom line.

* the hard truth was that no law school or other faculty of whatever prestige could have been expected to endure one such as myself in its ranks, any more than a Southern Baptist church could be expected to tolerate the presence of a polyamorous transgendered lesbian preaching liberation theology.

* I had never truly been a “rising young scholar.” That was just a socially respectable disguise, provisional camouflage under whose surface something darker was gestating perfidiously, something too primitive and barbarous to ever be welcomed by the highly civilized mandarins of the Wednesday faculty luncheon. Bob Weisberg’s incandescent rage that Wednesday afternoon in September 2009 was the direct physiological expression of this bitter pill, which that day’s fallout would teach me to swallow.

* Bourdieu: “A greater understanding of the mechanisms which govern the intellectual world should not … have the effect of “releasing the individual from the embarrassing burden of moral responsibility.” … On the contrary, it should teach him to place his responsibilities where his liberties are really situated and resolutely to refuse the infinitesimal acts of cowardice and laxness which leave the power of social necessity intact, to fight in himself and others the opportunist indifference or conformist ennui which allows the social milieu to impose the slippery slope of resigned compliance and submissive complicity.”

I emailed professor Josh Cohen the following excerpts that mention him:

* Resplendent with proper deference and pleasant demeanor, Josh was a well-adjusted member of the academy. Just like Barbara, he was all
that I was not. As a graduate student at Harvard, he had shrewdly placed himself under the wings of John Rawls, from there emerging as one of the nation’s preeminent theorists of liberalism. His devotion to carrying on his august mentor’s legacy was confirmed by the draft he was now penning, which defended Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s
“endorsement test” as the constitutional derivation of Rawls’s concept of public reason.

* As a committed liberal, Josh proved to be a useful sounding board for my sundry musings when we eventually met. We concurred that while religious conservatives and secular liberals hold each other in mutual suspicion, only the former feel genuinely denigrated and bullied by the other side. Liberals may believe themselves oppressed by
conservatives as women, gays, racial minorities, union members, creative artists, or just freedom-loving Americans. But they don’t ordinarily feel oppressed as liberals, in the way conservatives feel oppressed as conservatives. This asymmetry lay at the heart of my research agenda, and Josh had now validated it. The cool-headed, mild-mannered Josh exemplified everything anathema to the conservative culture warrior, so his reactions were noteworthy. And his vexation with me and my project was betrayed when he sized up my announced goal—making sense of why religious conservatives and secular liberals talk past one another—by advising that understanding why people do this is “what philosophy is,” which I felt was a pretty low bar to miss. The insinuation persisted into his closing admonition that I “work for it,” which was to imply that I hadn’t been doing so and was rather looking to get something for nothing. Just as Barbara had forgotten about my PhD, so Josh was now forgetting that I knew what philosophy is. This low opinion of me was something new. After all, I had scooped up a 4.1 in his own philosophy class, where he had joined Barbara in lauding my presentation, calling it “a wonderful presentation of a very hard piece.” He had also solicited my feedback on his own work in progress, which likewise suggested he had once thought more highly of me. There may be a philosophically interesting sense in which no one really knows what philosophy is, in which case Josh was technically justified in alluding to my ignorance. But then I was being singled out for what is our universal predicament, which I felt was discriminatory. To be fair, Josh could not but grow suspicious upon encountering my ever-deepening inarticulacy. His was just another in the chorus of skeptical voices I’d been hearing for months from fellows and faculty alike, starting with Joe and Barbara back in December. I was in fact “working for it.” But the it at this juncture consisted of hundreds upon hundreds of pages of disjointed notes, a byzantine mental labyrinth that only proliferated with every attempt at containment. As a living rebuke to the prevailing ideology, my immersion in the tacit dimension could only draw ire and suspicion.
This latest tangle with the powers that be once more illustrated how the virtue of clarity may be weaponized to serve the intellectual status quo. Josh’s thesis was clear because nonexclusion is uncontroversial uncontroversial on its face. I, on the other hand, was trying to wrap my mind around why conservative evangelicals won’t be moved by carefully honed arguments like Josh’s and feel marginalized in ways secular liberals are unprepared to credit as lucid or even sincere. Stupidity, sectarianism, and self-pity were all clear explanations for this disdain of liberal eloquence, but they were also shallow ones. Pursuing this topic had to come at the expense of clarity, leaving me haplessly exposed to Josh’s innuendo. Having arrogated the power to define the rhetorical rules of serious or responsible intellectual discourse, the elites can discredit dissent before it can come to its own and become articulate, leaving it stillborn and dumb. This new friction with Josh was but another instance of the structural liberalism under which I labored, one more battering by the subtle microaggressions through which the boundaries of the Matrix were being policed at Stanford.

* Josh Cohen then took the megaphone. Josh was the practice interview’s resident philosopher, so his words carried special weight. He began by saying something about my working through the night. I hadn’t advertised my long hours or the minimal sleep requirements enabling them, but maybe he could tell I was wired. Did Josh know what was up? Was he aware of the yawning yet unnamed chasm that now sundered the official and unofficial realities of my collegial relations? I couldn’t say with certainty. But my gut told me he knew, as did logic. Josh had had no hand in the watershed events of September so far as I could tell, but he had cotaught the course that had led me to Barbara and hence to those events. I had conferred with him in May, and his skepticism about the project might have fed into Barbara’s exasperation with me. I had, moreover, listed him as a reference on my CV despite his skepticism. Faculty members discuss the doings of their fellows from time to time, and the palace intrigue now
afoot at the law school was surely peculiar enough to warrant some gossip. Josh then proceeded to probe whether I was religious and all this was personal, if I didn’t mind his asking. I answered tersely in the negative on both counts. This wasn’t the unequivocally correct answer, but any other response was rhetorically impracticable in the
social context at hand. I was now religious only in the attenuated sense of viewing modern secularism askance as the secularization of certain inherited religious drives, a social construction of the disciplinary society rather than Enlightenment pure and simple. This was personal inasmuch as these realizations arose from the epiphany that had freed me from that social construction. Josh’s intuitions weren’t entirely off base, then, but I wasn’t going to delve into why right there, so I had to brush these probing questions aside. I also sensed derogatory undertones in the suggestion that my research was personal, as this could also be to insinuate that it was less than rigorous. Since insinuations cannot be argued with, I acted to sidestep this line of inquiry and move on. Substantively, though, Josh’s feedback that day was quite helpful. I had been dissecting the Supreme Court’s decision in County of Allegheny v. ACLU in order to argue that whether judicial proscriptions of publicly sponsored Nativity scenes constitute what the dissent bemoaned as a “religion of secularism” turns on whether those rulings are set against a modern or premodern conception of the relationship between the religious and the
secular. Josh found it remarkable that I could find anything novel to say on so hackneyed a topic as the constitutionality of Nativity scenes. He also underscored the pertinence of Justice David Souter’s concurring opinion in Lee v. Weisman, which I had cited but failed to spotlight. The observation was invaluable, as the Souter concurrence was more central to the thrust of my argument than I’d first appreciated. Josh had noticed my blind spot and alerted me to it.

Professor Cohen responds:

I am glad that he found some of my observations helpful. That said, I really have only limited memories of Rony and his manuscript. As I mentioned, I do recall finding the manuscript about “conservative claims” pretty laborious and not as compelling as at least one colleague had found it. Rony describes it as: “hundreds upon hundreds of pages of disjointed notes, a byzantine mental labyrinth that only proliferated with every attempt at containment.” That is probably a harsher judgment than any I expressed. I guess I thought he had a topic that was worth pursuing, that he had not wrestled it to the ground, and perhaps was not persuaded that he was the right person to give voice to the concerns of “conservative evangelicals,” which requires different capacities than giving an exposition of an article by PF Strawson.

The one thing I find especially unfortunate is that he thinks that there were “derogatory undertones” in my wondering about whether there was a personal side to his project. I think it is great when people are driven by deep set of personal convictions in their work.

Anyway, what he says in the passages below is vaguely amusing, and misguided, IMHO, in some of the attitudes he expresses, but…not sure what if anything he thinks I did wrong, other than having a less elevated view of his efforts than he did.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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