Prof. Andrew Pessin: Johnston’s novel about campus life “does a first-rate job capturing the language and sentiments used, expressed, and at key moments truly weaponized by campus social justice activists.”
Sometimes someone writes something that you wish you yourself had written.
A few weeks ago I had just put the finishing touches on my new novel, Nevergreen, a “high-spirited, richly imagined” campus satire that is both “smart and hilarious” (IMHO), when I learned that debut novelist Scott Johnston was a week away from publishing a campus satire called Campusland that Kirkus Reviews described in the words I just quoted.
Great minds think alike, perhaps, but slightly greater minds apparently think it sooner. Of course I picked up the novel with a grumpy harrumph fully prepared to dislike it immensely.
Damn it. The novel is high-spirited, richly imagined, smart and hilarious.
Kirkus also rightly calls it “brave.” It is not only entertaining but essential reading for anyone concerned about the current state and future direction of American campuses. At its core it is about left-progressive political correctness not merely running amok but becoming weaponized, nuclear-style.
The setting is a not-so-fictional university, Devon University, which seems a lot like Yale University, Johnston’s alma mater. (And in full disclosure, mine too. He was two years ahead of me in school as well as a year ahead of me in writing a campus satire.)
The protagonists represent key contemporary student demographics at such elite universities: the radically left-progressive students in general, the many distinct left-progressive identity and interest groups in particular (women, LGBQT, African-American, etc.), the vaguely British-accented aristocratic elite (including trust fund babies), the fraternity element. (Very few who are, you know, just students.)
There are relevant faculty members in play: the radically left-progressive in general and the distinct-identitied left-progressives in particular, the gender-ambiguous, the personal pronoun militant, the old school old fogey out of touch with today’s times, and the main faculty character, an English professor named Ephraim Russell who is moderately left and quite sane and rational and who is naively about to become the center of a maelstrom of madness not of his own making. There are some key staff people, too, most importantly the woman running the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, more on whom shortly.
And then there is the university president—the older white man with the impossible job of simultaneously pleasing a set of constituents who profoundly disagree with and sometimes hate each other. These include the alumni disgruntled at what they see their beloved alma mater turning into and all those students (or maybe scare-quote “students”) who are the source of the disgruntling.
When you think about it, a university campus really is a powder-keg waiting for a match. Someone should write a satire about it!
In this case the match arrives in the form of a trust-fund hard-partying socialite named Lulu Harris (think Paris Hilton, only smarter) who is a reluctant freshman—sorry, first-year student—at Daddy’s beloved alma matter. I’ll preserve the plot details and avoid the spoilers here, but Lulu ends up playing a peripheral (if key) role in the first, smaller campus drama of the novel, then the central role in the major second one.
In the first drama, poor Prof. Russell finds himself charged by the radical Progressive Student Alliance with being a racist—because his course on the major writers of 19th Century American Literature does not feature any African-American writers and because its required readings include Mark Twain and his use of the N-word, without any trigger warnings. That Prof. Russell patiently explains the understandably low literacy rates of 19th century enslaved African-Americans and Twain’s actually progressive attitudes in the context of his times respectively does nothing to mitigate the ire of his attackers.
In the second, truly explosive campus drama, poor Prof. Russell is accused of sexual assault—and thus finds himself at the center of a dreadful and terrifying Obama-era campus Title IX investigation and hearing that would make one long, instead, to be targeted by the Spanish Inquisition.
There is a lot to praise in this book. Johnston masterfully handles the plot throughout both dramas, making the book suspenseful and page-turning and really hard to put down at spots. He is clearly well informed about campus dynamics and rhetoric and about actual campus events over the past few years; many of the details of the novel are “ripped from the headlines,” at least if you read headlines about campuses.
He does a first-rate job capturing the language and sentiments used, expressed, and at key moments truly weaponized by campus social justice activists. There are many points in the novel, such as throughout the racism drama targeting Prof. Russell’s class, where he really captures the nuances and even the legitimate motives and arguments of the attackers.
Some of my favorite moments are where he portrays the kind of dialectical tension that is good, that drives knowledge forward, at least in the ideal university, where different individuals with genuinely good intentions and good will but legitimately different perspectives clash in the domain of inquiry and try to work things out. Now if only all campus dialectical tension were like that…
The larger question, of course, is just what lessons are conveyed by the book about today’s actual campus scene. What specific conclusions is the reader invited to draw? What attitudes toward the various campus actors are we invited to adopt? That Johnson himself has a distinct opinion here may be seen in his depictions of the main characters.
Perhaps the only actually likeable major character in the book is poor Prof. Russell. But while most everyone else is pretty unlikeable (think equal opportunity satire), it is the lead actors in the two central dramas who are particularly dislikeable, to the point where they truly seem to be—what better word—deplorables.
Lulu Harris, for example, makes Paris Hilton into a paragon of the quiet life of intellect and virtue by comparison. The Progressive Student Alliance is a group of stoners led by a Rasta-style-dreadlocked stoner named Red who has been using his own trust fund money to hang around Devon seven years already and do little more than agitate.
Early in the book (and the academic year) Red calls a meeting to plan the group’s quasi-military operations for the year. He quickly dismisses spending the year attacking Israel (again), disappointed that last year’s operations on that front failed to gain traction. So they need something else, something about Devon itself, to get people worked up. They are rebels momentarily without a cause, desperately seeking a cause for which to rebel. That cause comes when they hear about Prof. Russell’s evil class on American Literature.
But the take-home is that it’s all deliberate, almost like a game: the need to make a stink, cause a scene, run a protest, target somebody or something, is primary, and the specific details almost an afterthought. The nuance and dialectical fairness mentioned above notwithstanding, the protest itself feels calculated, opportunistic, unprincipled, not serious. Kids these days!
Things are even more extreme regarding the second drama, the sexual assault case. The Dean of the Devon Office of Diversity and Inclusion who runs the process is straightforwardly nasty and without genuine principles and integrity. Johnston does do an impressive job of getting inside her mind at times and exploring how she self-justifies her behavior, but it seemed (to me at any rate) that we are invited to read her inner thoughts not as justificatory of her actions but as vicious post hoc rationalization. Terrifying (and masterful) as this segment of the book is, it is clear that the Dean is simply a major villain. And her villainy is not restricted to this second drama either.
The first campus drama was primarily driven by the angry students, true, but it was done so by the very interest and identity groups actively promoted by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and it too resulted in a hearing presided over by the same Dean. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that this office is responsible for everything nasty at Devon and, by extension, on the university campus in general.
But while the novel is about this one particular fictional university, does it represent the true state of the American campus in general? How much, we might ask, is “just fiction” and how much is effectively documentary?
To answer those questions decisively obviously goes beyond the scope of this review. I suspect conservative-leaners, who according to a recent Legal Insurrection piece increasingly find universities to be “bad for America,” will read the book more as a documentary while progressive-leaners will read it more as fiction. But there is surely no shortage of anecdotes that support the former reading; as I mentioned, stories “ripped from the headlines” inform the novel throughout. Most recently (for just one example) Oberlin College has been much in the news, as closely followed by Legal Insurrection itself. Not only did Oberlin just lose a major lawsuit brought in response to its overzealous prosecution of alleged racism against a local bakery, but it is also being sued by a former student who was the victim of an unjust internal Obama-era Title IX process similar to the one depicted in the novel. Curiously, Meredith Raimondo, the Oberlin administrator at the center of both lawsuits was, at different times, both the school’s Title IX coordinator and in charge of “equity, inclusion, and diversity” at the school. One imagines Johnston had a person like Raimondo very much in mind as he was composing the book.
In any case, Campusland is written, according to the author’s afterword, “as satire.” A satire perhaps does not need to be “accurate” or “fair,” exactly, at least not in a literal sense. A satire can exaggerate the literal details in order to get at the deeper truths, to expose the deeper currents sometimes obscured by the literal details. The offices of “Diversity and Inclusion” popping up all over campuses (and receiving plenty of money, including federal tax dollars) may perhaps do some important work at the same time as they are guilty of the kinds of troublesome excesses that Campusland is so expertly highlighting. At the very least the charges this novel brings to the table must be taken seriously no matter where one may stand on the issues or on the political spectrum. And so Johnston has really pulled off something remarkable: He has written a gripping, tightly plotted, entertaining book that also advances an essential conversation that anyone who care about campuses must engage in.
Kind of like what I was trying to do in my novel, if he hadn’t gotten there first.
Andrew Pessin is Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Studies at Connecticut College, and Campus Bureau Editor of the Algemeiner. Among other works he is co-editor of Anti-Zionism on Campus: The University, Free Speech, and BDS.DONATE
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