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

This challenging new book is based on conservative victimology.

In my experience, most people are better off with a lower level of victimology in their life. I know I am.

Feeling like a victim of circumstance has dominated my life, and when I’ve been in that mode, it has made me ineffective, immoral, and unhappy. Even when I was a victim, it usually didn’t serve me to embrace my victimhood. I feel happier and more effective the more I focus on the things I can influence (such as my reactions) rather than on what’s outside of my control.

When I emerged from six years of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at age 27, I wanted to grab everything I could to make up for what had been robbed from me. This made me a menace to society and to myself. I oscillated from the thrill of new sexual conquests to a growing depression based on my realization that I’m a bad person.

As I read The Star Chamber of Stanford: On the Secret Trial and Invisible Persecution of a Stanford Law Fellow by lawyer and philosopher Rony Guldmann, I see the protagonist become increasingly unhappy, immoral (memorializing and publishing interactions normally thought to be private), and ineffective the more he sees himself as a victim of the liberal elite.

If he hadn’t gone on this journey to print, however, I would not have had the pleasure of devouring this book and wanting to be mates with the author. (Rony reacts to my review.)

In the world around me, I see that the more intense your sense of victimhood, the less moral accountability you feel to the wider society that has screwed you over. I am thinking about those blacks, whites, and gays who do horrible things when they are convinced that America has screwed them over. When certain Republicans, for instance, became convinced that they were cheated out of the 2020 American presidential election, the less constrained they felt, and this lack of constraint led to the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill.

At the same time, I recognize that every in-group identity has a sense of victimhood, and that this builds one’s identity, and one’s nationalism, and one’s capacity for genocide and madness in addition to magnificent achievement. A mild to moderate sense of grievance may serve you in many circumstances up to the point where you needlessly antagonize others. Due to my vulnerabilities, resentment rarely serves me. Just as I abstain from alcohol (I may have a sip on social occasions, but I never drink cups of alcoholic beverages) due to my awareness of my self-destructive and addictive tendencies, so too I wish to abstain from anger that lasts beyond the fleeting (if getting angry helps you get something important done, then it may well serve you in the moment, but it rarely serves you to nurse it for weeks, months, and years).

When I step aside from moralizing, however, I have to tell you that I loved this new book. It might be mad, bad and dangerous to know, but I want to read more from this author. Sure, the book is ponderous at times, it has too many typos, and its central argument that Stanford Law for 18 months maintained an internet home page primarily designed to send the author a message strikes me as absurd, but I kept getting valuable new insights and tremendous entertainment value as I read and reread (see the book’s highlights here). Within 20 minutes of opening my Kindle, I had received joy that greatly exceeded the $8.49 purchase price.

I expect I’ll be wrestling with arguments in this book for many months to come. I plan to read his other works such as Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression and The Critical Theory of Academia.

Over the past month, I’ve been reading sociologist Liah Greenfeld and it struck me that her thesis that the more freedom you have, the more likely you are to go mad, may apply to Rony’s story. When he received a two year fellowship from Stanford Law (including a yearly stipend of $60,000), he had an unprecedented amount of freedom and that may well have unhinged him. But free from hinges, he produced a book unlike any I have ever read.

Many people will read this book and diagnose the author with schizophrenia based on the following delusions:

Delusions of persecution – Belief that others, often a vague “they,” are out to get you. These harassing delusions often involve bizarre ideas and plots (e.g. “Martians are trying to poison me with radioactive particles delivered through my tap water”).

Delusions of reference – A neutral environmental event is believed to have a special and personal meaning. For example, you might believe a billboard or a person on TV is sending a message meant specifically for you.

Delusions of grandeur – Belief that you are a famous or important figure, such as Jesus Christ or Napoleon. Alternately, delusions of grandeur may involve the belief that you have unusual powers, such as the ability to fly.

Some critics will point out these common early warning signs of schizophrenia in Rony’s story:

* Depression, social withdrawal
* Hostility or suspiciousness, extreme reaction to criticism
* Deterioration of personal hygiene
* Flat, expressionless gaze
* Inability to cry or express joy or inappropriate laughter or crying
* Oversleeping or insomnia; forgetful, unable to concentrate
* Odd or irrational statements; strange use of words or way of speaking

Liah Greenfeld noted in her 2013 book Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience:

Because of its secularism, egalitarianism, and insistence on popular sovereignty…[nationalism] makes people activist. It follows logically from the explicit or implicit recognition that man has only one life, that social reality, at least, is a thing of his making, and that all men are equal—that nothing can justify this one life falling short of giving full satisfaction, that men are responsible for all its disappointments, and that everyone has the right to change reality that disappoints. It becomes relatively easy to mobilize national populations in causes of social reform and civil society comes into being…

Ideological politics is a specific form of politics brought about by nationalism. They are irrational in the sense of being motivated by a dedication (passionate, if not fanatic) to causes which in the large majority of cases lack the remotest connection to the personal experience—and therefore objective interests—of the participants, but are characterized by their capacity to justify and explain the discomfort these participants feel with their self and social environment. At their core invariably lie visions that bear the most distinctive mark of a schizophrenic delusion: the loss of the understanding of the symbolic nature of human social reality and the confusion between symbols and their referents, when the symbols themselves become objective reality…

The majority of [activists] are activated not by specific, pragmatic interests, but by a desire to change the society radically on the basis of some vaguely defined ideal. The change is predicated on the destruction of what the ideal is to replace. Thus, while the ideal is vague, the destructive, violent impulse is clearly focused and, with symbols and their referents confused, actual people are killed because of what they represent, rather than because of what they do.

The core ideal and the enemy which the revolutionary movement targets are delusions and are very likely to emerge in the disordered minds of, and offered by, actual schizophrenics. However, the overwhelming majority of those who accept and carry on the message, i.e., of the revolutionaries, participants in the revolution, must be of necessity recruited from among the mildly mentally ill, those suffering from the general anomic malaise, neuroses or neurasthenia, from what we refer to today as spectrum disorders. In effect, they use the schizophrenic’s delusions as therapy for their minor ills. Their presentation of these minor personal ills under the cover of a general cause serves to conceal their mental illness from themselves and from others. Their recognition of a schizophrenic’s delusion as a general cause conceals his/her major mental disease, presents him/her (and allows him/her to self-represent) as a prophet, a genius, etc., and may elevate him/her to the position of the revolutionary leader…

Schizophrenics are singularly attuned to the surrounding culture. I have characterized the schizophrenic mental process as free-ranging culture in the individual brain; their mind being completely deindividualized, and their will completely incapacitated, it is culture in general that processes itself in their healthy brain and language itself that speaks through them.

In Star Chamber, Rony anticipates this mental health analysis:

* 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. As I would later learn, I had been caricatured as contending that set 1 constituted a legally cognizable offer. One needn’t be an attorney, or even a high school graduate, to recognize the absurdity absurdity of the idea. Yet just such beliefs were now being imputed to me. The home page did facilitate a certain “meeting of minds,” as they say in contracts. I was being asked to sit tight and not sue in exchange for either a job or evidence for the existence of an underlying controversy one interpretation of which might have moved Stanford to give me a job but ultimately wouldn’t. Obviously, I would have been more pleased with the former. But fanciful or not, that preference wasn’t equivalent to the ludicrous suggestion that a legally cognizable agreement had been formed. The conspirators’ supreme creativity was now being misread as my lunacy. I had been pathologized, and so no one was much concerned with the pesky details of what exactly I believed and why.

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.

…But how to explain this latest debacle at Stanford? Was I going to tell my mom that I’d reaped the whirlwind after mounting an ideological insurrection against the New Class and its technocratic antipathy to the sovereign intellect and thought for thought’s sake? Like most everyone in my San Francisco circle, she lacked the capacity for abstraction and integrative complexity required to comprehend the intricate chains of causation and webs of meaning that I have been charting. My rhetorical impotence only reinforced her emerging conviction that I had lost my wits and that this latest misadventure merely consummated a recurring logic of folly and ruin…

Which of the following scenarios is more improbable?

Scenario 1—My sensory perceptions and inferences therefrom were largely sound, at least in their general outlines if not in all the details. I was indeed in the crosshairs of a liberal conspiracy bent on gaslighting me as payback for my own manipulations, which had been necessitated by my resistance to the academic habitus and the modern disciplinary society that helps sustain it.

Scenario 2—I was a stressed-out Stanford fellow who had taken leave of his senses and descended into delirium. Waking up one fine morning, I began to fancy myself a Spartacus of academia but really was only its Don Quixote, tilting at windmills in a delusional crusade against the sublimated and intellectualized conservatism conservatism of the liberal elites. Desperately trying to weave my sundry paranoid imaginings into a coherent narrative, I concluded that my employer’s home page was communicating a coded message to me.

* I am not a licensed mental health practitioner, but I also hope my tribulations contribute useful fodder for the academic study of gaslighting, which is perhaps still in its infancy.

* …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.

* 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.

* Mistaking our articulated intelligence for the entirety of our mental life, academia’s prevailing technocratic vision prejudices its devotees against all that is merely unconscious, semiconscious, intuitive, and visceral, which is subtly anathematized as a departure from scholarly seriousness and sign of ingratitude for the contributions of scholarly forebears. Inveterately hostile to the tacit dimension, the dominant dispensation leaves its devotees insensible to the mind’s ability to create order out of chaos and, indeed, to generate chaos for the very purpose of imposing order on it.

* I wrote Two Orientations Toward Human Nature, which argues that contemporary Western culture entertains a schizophrenic view of human nature. One stream of that culture assigns a vital explanatory role to egoism, setting forth a tough-minded account of human motivation wherein self-interest only rarely yields to altruism. However, another cultural current discounts the egoism-altruism dichotomy and instead dichotomizes wholeness and alienation, authenticity and inauthenticity, or self-awareness and self-oblivion. These distinct orientations toward human nature, respectively embodied in the Anglo-American and Continental philosophical traditions, yield ostensibly incongruous portraits of the social status quo. Where the first, tough-minded, orientation highlights robust individualism, the second, more “countercultural,” orientation shines a light on depersonalization by mass culture, discerning a frenzied “escape from freedom” where the first orientation sees atomistic self-absorption. I wanted to get to the bottom of this intellectual rift and determine whether these facially incongruous vocabularies were genuinely at odds or merely underscored different facets of the same human condition.

* My advisers and I were ostensibly on opposing wavelengths, but our relations had always been Janus-faced if not downright schizophrenic, and there was another level on which we were uncannily in sync.

* Barbara [Fried]’s abrupt decision to respond illustrated the schizophrenic character of our relationship as it had by then evolved. The pique stoked by my research habits didn’t suddenly disappear. But since her true sentiments had never been formally aired but only vented passive-aggressively through sullen looks and unanswered emails, she now had no choice but to concede something to the official pretense that our relations were something other than dysfunctional.

* This incongruity was merely the latest manifestation of the larger contradiction I had been living since September and earlier. I was in revolt against the intellectual magistrature of the sacred college of masters. But because I had never announced that insurgency in express terms, its suppression proceeded tacitly as well, in the tension between the official and unofficial realities. That explained the contradiction between the knockout email and Barbara’s flattery on the phone and rave review of my paper. This latest inconsistency was another iteration of the same schizophrenic logic. Such wouldn’t be apparent to the casual onlooker glancing at these email exchanges. But that was because our relationship was unfolding at one level up, as in truth it always had.

And yet the deeper meaning of this truth remained murky. Enmeshed in ambiguity and indeterminacy, our relationship occupied a gray zone that straddled the line between truth and falsehood.

* For a year I had played the prophet, absconding from ordered society to wander in a mental wilderness of my own making, and that trek had now been redeemed by this new dispensation of meaning. All this was thanks to Joe. His law-and-religion suggestion had set me on my road to Damascus by forcing me to grapple with the historical forces against which religious conservatives’ sense of besiegement makes sense, allowing me to recognize modern secularism as part and parcel of a disciplinary regime hostile to human nature’s ancestral default settings. Conservative claims of cultural oppression weren’t mere posturing and histrionics but flawed articulations of this truth, in whose light I now walked. I wasn’t privy to the full implications of these realizations. But it was clear that, in pursuing the truth of those claims, I had also been pursuing the truth of myself, wrestling to liberate something that had been suppressed by the dominant order but yearned to live.

* 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.

About Luke Ford

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