Mike tells Sarah how liberal magazines turned a "kids these days" moral panic into a national crisis. Digressions include Law & Order, Dave Foley and swimming pool etiquette. This episode contains detailed descriptions of sexual assault, mass shootings and suicide.
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Also, is free speech a right in the Constitution? It’s not like the Bill of Privileges, sweetie
Welcome to You’re Wrong About, where we learn about the moral panics of the past, present and future.
Mike: Aww, because it's all the same.
Sarah: Because it's the same one every time, baby. What goes up, must come down.
Mike: I am Michael Hobbes.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall.
Mike: And if you want to support the show and listen to our cute bonus episodes, including one we just recorded about Lil Nas X and the new Satanic Panic. You can find us on Patreon at patreon.com/yourewrongabout. And you can find Sarah on Why Are Dads?, and you can find Mike on Maintenance Phase.
Sarah: Or you could just listen to this show and just keep focusing on not giving us money and spending your money on road trip snacks.
Mike: No further action required.
Sarah: Mike, I am very excited about our topic today.
Mike: Why is that?
Sarah: Because I think this is one of those episodes where my nineties childhood is going to make a lot more sense to me at the end.
Mike: I thought you were going to say that your nineties college experience was going to make more sense, because you were like part of this.
Sarah: Yeah, I'm 50.
Mike: But weren’t you on like one of these college campuses that gets sort of demonized as like too lib or whatever?
Sarah: Probably, because I went to Bennington for a little while.
Mike: There you go. That's the thing you listen to moral panics. There's only like nine universities in the United States and they're all like small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast.
Sarah: Wait, can I guess yeah. Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, Skidmore, Oberlin, Antioch, obviously. Oh gosh, the one in Olympia. Evergreen.
Mike: Yeah, we're going to have some Swarthmore this episode, we're going to have some Harvard and Yale.
Sarah: Of course.
Mike: We're gonna have some Wellesley in Wesleyan.
Sarah: There’s a Wellesley, and a Wesleyan. And I'm sure they're both in these.
Mike: Yeah. As I was looking into this, that there are 1500 universities in the United States and only 200 of them are small liberal arts colleges and they enroll 4% of all colleges.
Sarah: And yet our entire population is learning and social mores from them. It's fascinating.
Mike: And now they are at the center of this now three decade long moral panic about “free speech” on campus. And it's always the same seven campuses, Colgate, Colby…
Mike: Cold men, cold stone.
Sarah: It's kind of fun to just name colleges.
Mike: So give me your understanding of the political correctness panic of the 19901’s.
Sarah: Okay. So I remember an episode of Law and Order from like 1993, 1994, where Jack McCoy is having dinner with Elizabeth Olivette, who is the bleeding heart liberal. So they're at a restaurant he's like, “What's good hear?” She's like, “Veal, pasta if you're PC.” And that's how I first remember hearing that term. And I was like, what, why wouldn’t Jack McCoy be a PC? So I just knew that this was a thing in the nineties that people were like, I am politically incorrect. Yeah. And it feels like it encompasses a whole range of behaviors, really?
Mike: Oh yeah. As in a classic moral panic, the thing that you're panicking about has this completely amorphous definition. I think of it as like, you know, identity politics or something like playing the race card, right. It's only something you use as an accusation against somebody else to discredit their argument. It's basically a way to not engage on the substance. It's like, “Oh, you're just being politically correct right now’.
The term originates in the 1930s. It's something that comes up a lot in like communist regimes. I found a reference to political correctness in the New York times from the 1980s where they were talking about Mao's China. And it was like, “We must make sure that all of the press reports are politically correct.” And so it's always been a way of talking about something bad. Like something that implies censorship, something that implies that there's not really an earnest belief behind it. It's just a way of applying a purity test.
Sarah: And that you're being surveilled and punished by a government, and that's why you're speaking this way.
Mike: So for years it was an in joke among leftists. Like it was like, “Ha ha ha. I guess I'm not politically correct”. But it was never actually used earnestly. Like there's no scenario in which you would say to somebody, excuse me, can you please be more political? Correct. So it's like a way of saying, I don't want to do that. Identifying as politically incorrect is like identifying as I never play the race card because playing the race card is by definition something other people do that offends you.
Sarah: Yeah. You're not like I'm going to go ahead and play the race card here, Tim. Yeah.
Mike: So most of this episode is going to focus on the way that this was applied to college campuses, in this way that they just kind of came to be seen as symbolic of the left, generally.
The unsaved assumption of the political correctness of moral panic was that what is happening on this extremely small number of campuses. Like was what the left wanted, right? Then like what they were doing on Smith College or whatever was going to become the agenda of the much larger political left.
Sarah: I’ve said this before and I'll say it again, I think this is projection because it's really sort of American evangelicals and the far right, that is interested in this systematic, cultural rewriting and changing of the culture through how they raised their children. And leftists are just kind of bumbling around, fighting with each other because that’s what these little colleges are for, by the way.
Mike: Absolutely. Like that's what goes on at these colleges. Take it from someone who didn't go to these colleges.
Sarah: As someone who did go, I can confirm that.
Mike: So conservatives have basically been waging war on college education for 70 years now. The first sort of salvo in this war was in 1951. William F. Buckley writes a book called God and Man at Yale. And that really sets the template for what we're going to get into in the nineties. It's just a series of anecdotes about things that are happening on college campuses that indicate that professors are way too radical.
So one of the only differences between the moral panic that we have now about campuses and the moral panic that they had then about campuses, is that now it's mostly focused on kids. Like the students on campuses are de-platforming people and they're threatening free speech, blah, blah, blah. But back then, it was more about sort of radical Marxist professors sneaking their ideology into classrooms and colleges.
Sarah: That makes sense, because this is the America of the red scare.
Mike: Exactly. Yes.
And so throughout the sixties and seventies, there was a very deliberate and kind of open effort by - especially John M Olin, who's this like odious right-wing billionaire - but a bunch of other right-wing philanthropists. This is like the pre Koch brother’s era. They make a full court press to get conservatives onto college campuses and they start a project to discredit leftist ideas on college campuses.
So they set up a bunch of endowed chairs in various departments. One of the things they do is they set up a bunch of campus newspapers, and they establish these newspapers at campuses that don't have them. And they're like conservative newspapers. They are trying to get right-wing ideas into the bloodstream. And they're trying to point out professors that are indoctrinating students with Marxist leftist ideas. So another thing they do is they set up hotlines where students can call up and like snitch on their professors.
Sarah: They're like, “If you or a loved one has been exposed to leftist ideas, you may be eligible for compensation.”
Mike: They do actually fund lawsuits, too.
Sarah: Against who? Why?
Mike: Against campuses that start imposing speech codes and anything that they consider to be infringing upon free speech, they will pay for students to file lawsuits. In the 1970s and 1980s. the line that they're pushing is that there's these radical Marxists on campus. And it becomes a thing in conservative circles, but it doesn't really jump over to mainstream liberal establishment institutions. It just, they can't get liberals in this sort of broader news media ecosystem to give a shit.
Sarah: Yeah. Marxists are kind of funny and cute.
Mike: So by the late eighties, they do a rebrand. In the late eighties, three books come out. You've probably heard of these books. One of them is Allan Bloom's, The Closing of the American Mind.
Sarah: I definitely heard that title.
Mike: There's also a 1988 book by Charlie Sykes called, Prof Scam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education.
Sarah: Prof Scam, that sounds like it's going to be in an exciting book about professors who do a heist, and their pensions get wiped out. But, oh well.
Mike: There’s also more to the point. Roger Kimball writes a book in 1989 called, Tenured Radicals. One of the aspects of these three books that doesn't really get remarked upon at the time, is that all three of them are funded by right-wing philanthropists. So these are all guys that are working at think tanks or their department is funded by right-wing philanthropists. Like this is a deliberate project.
So these books basically rebrand the argument in three ways. The first thing is they drop the Marxist communist stuff. That's not really working anymore. So they shift to social issues. So instead of saying there's a bunch of communists on campus, they start saying there's a bunch of social justice warriors on campus who want to have, you know, African-American studies programs and women's studies programs. And, you know, there's gay professors and they want to have all kinds of gay propaganda pumped into your children.
Sarah: Again, like this is a theme on our show. Like, if you prey on parents at the moment that they are releasing their precious baby into the world, whether it's sending them off to daycare in the case of the satanic panic, or sending them off to Oberlin, that tends to be pretty effective. That's a good Tinder to get your bow drill out and get ready to drop your coal onto.
Mike: So this is one of the excerpts from Roger Kimball's book, Tenured Radicals. He says, “Certain subjects such as affirmative action and homosexuality have been removed from civil debate. So strong is the force to accept the politically correct view. It's a manifestation of what some are liberal fascism.”
Sarah: People are saying. We're looking into this very strongly.
Mike: Under the name of pluralism and freedom of speech, it is an attempt to enforce a narrow and ideologically motivated view of both the curriculum, and what it means to be an educated person and a responsible citizen.
Sarah: We're seeing how you can accuse people have political correctness if they’re forcing you to humanize people who you don't want to see as humans.
Mike: Exactly. Another thing that they really lean into, and this is also new, is that they rebrand conservatives as victims. So throughout this whole time, civil rights movement and the women's movement, there's sort of this growing realization of discrimination and really systemic discrimination as an issue in America. Conservatives have been pushing back against that for the entire time, of course, but then in the 1980s, what they realize is that they can actually slip themselves into that frame and say, “Well, we are actually a discriminated against minority. And you say that you care about black people. You say that you care about gay people. Well, we're an oppressed minority, too”.
So there's a quote from Robert Weisberg, who's a political scientist. And he says in one of these political correctness articles, he says, “We are the queers of the 1990s.”
Sarah: Oh, Lord.
Mike: Weisberg says, “Conservatives try to pass and fear a public outing of their views, since being called a conservative is not all that different than being called Richard Speck, the mass murderer.”
Sarah: If you feel like being called a conservative, which is the thing that you announce yourself to be, is like being called a mass murderer. Then like that just seems like your problem.
Mike: Exactly. And also. “We are the queers of the 1990s”, uh, queers are the queers of the 1990s.
Sarah: No, no. You guys were fine. I remember that. It was fine, right? Ellen was on Time making that face.
Mike: I should also mention that like all of these books, these conservative philanthropy, funded books, all of them contain just wildly false claims.
Sarah: Such as?
Mike: So this is from Allen Bloom's book. He has a whole chapter on sort of the growing militancy of black students on campus. He's talking about Cornell in the 1960s when he was a student there, but what he doesn't mention is yes, there were protests by black students at Cornell in the 1960s. They were because someone had lit a burning cross on campus. And then as a result of this like wave of protest, they set up an African studies program and then they build a building called the Africana Studies Center. Like a building that's going to house all of this African-American studies stuff. And somebody burns it down.
Sarah: Oh my God, that's incredible.
Mike: So he frames this as like these black students are getting more and more radical for no reason.
Sarah: Yes. And if your argument is so sound, then you shouldn't have to play tricks to make it seem more persuasive.
Mike: It's like, you know, that you're full of shit, basically. So the author of this excellent book, The Myth of Political Correctness, is named John Wilson. I interviewed him, he said one of the main things too, that was kind of underneath all of this was huge boomer anxieties about affirmative action and about higher education generally. So, you know, if you look at the number of people who are admitted to these elite institutions. It really hasn't changed since the 1950s. Like Harvard basically lets in the same number of people now than it always has.
So there's essentially been no expansion in the number of college places. And there's been a massive expansion in the size of the U.S. population and the demand for college degrees to get a decent paying job. And even at the sort of the middle tier of schools, this is also when college prices start to go up, and it's just becoming more and more difficult to get your kids into these “decent schools”. And there's huge anxieties about are my kids going to be able to get the quality of education that I got. And a lot of these anxieties end up getting pushed onto affirmative action.
Sarah: Oh, that's yeah, of course they do.
Mike: And of course there's no merit to this. The effects of affirmative action were extremely modest and ended up mostly helping white women. But it's just easier to blame all of these anxieties on minority students, this phantom of affirmative action, rather than looking at stuff like legacy admissions, or defunding, or all of the other factors that are making it much harder to get into school. The shit that people would just say in the 1990s, and they would print it.
Like there's a 1991 article in the New Republic where a PhD student at Harvard, this is the quote he says, “If I weren't a white male, I'd have little difficulty getting a teaching job when I finished my dissertation. Female and minority PhDs are so much in demand. They're courted like baseball free agents. My female and minority peers will be snapped up as soon as they enter the job market. Merit is moot.”
Sarah: Merit is moot! Mood!
Mike: Merit is moot.
Sarah: Merit is moot.
Mike: You can look at statistics on this. This isn't true. Like people who graduate with PhDs, white men are significantly more likely to get tenure track teaching jobs. Like this was never the case.
So these conservative books come out in the late 1980s. The Closing of the American Mind becomes a runaway bestseller. Alan Bloom shows up on Oprah to talk about this stuff, obviously. Then 1990/1991 is when political correctness explodes. So I am going to send you an abysmal Newsweek cover.
Sarah: Okay. I'm going to really struggle with trying to say the words and the tone that I know you're supposed to read them in. Okay. So it's a Newsweek cover. The ancillary story that they have a little headline about at the top is containing Saddam, Can Diplomacy Do the Job? So you read that and you're like already a little stressed. And then, in a little red subhead, it says, Watch What You Say. And then in like raised stone lettering, like it has been hewn with a chisel by one of those sad workers in the 1984 Apple ad, it says, Thought Police. And then the description, “There's a politically correct way to talk about race, sex, and ideas. Is this the new enlightenment or the new McCarthyism?” And then you have to buy the magazine to find out.
Mike: So in 1990, there were 65 articles in the national media with the phrase ‘political correctness’. In 1991, there were 1,500. And by 1994, there were 7,000. Like we had forgotten how big of a deal this was.
Sarah: But the fossils are there in Law and Order reruns.
Mike: Over of course of just in 1991, we had this abysmal Newsweek cover story. We had a New York Magazine cover story. The New Republic dedicated an entire issue to the issue of political correctness. In 1993, we had a Time Magazine cover story called, Culture of Complaint- The Fraying of America.
Sarah: Complaining is supposed to be fraying America? I thought we were so strong that we could defeat the Nazis, and police the world, and do whatever we wanted. And yet we're under siege by some whiny college students. Really?
Mike: George H.W. Bush gives a speech. He dedicates an entire commencement address to political correctness in 1991. There's also, this is a very important one, so in 1991, Dinesh D'Souza writes a book called Illiberal Education.
Sarah: Can you just give us a precede, because I don't think I fully know, honestly, who is Dinesh D'Souza and why is he saying these terrible things about me?
Mike: So Dinesh D’Souza is just a straightforward, conservative, shock troop. He's one of these people who gets a bunch of money from conservative philanthropies, he works at various think tanks. His first book was a fawning biography of Jerry Falwell. He actually was the editor of The Dartmouth Review, this right wing campus newspaper that these right wing billionaires set up.
This is an excerpt from John Wilson's The Myth of Political Correctness. He says, “During D’Souza’s time as editor, The Dartmouth Review published an interview with former KKK leader David Duke, in an issue that featured a staged photo on the cover of a black man hanging from a tree on campus. D'Souza’s paper also ran a parody of black English called, Dis Ain't No Jive, Bro.
Sarah: Oh God.
Mike: D'Souza personally outed gay students in 1981 by printing personal letters taken from the files of the Gay Student Alliance.
Sarah: Oh my God. Okay. I'm impressed that Dartmouth had a Gay Student Alliance in 1981, though.
Mike: Every Cloud.
Sarah: That's nice. Good for them.
Mike: But then what drives me nuts about D'Souza is that in 1991, before his book comes out, The Atlantic publishes a 12,000 word cover story excerpt in which they don't mention any of his past. They just say, “Oh, Dinesh D'Souza was the editor of The Dartmouth Review”.
Sarah: It would be like, if you were like a small town newspaper in a place without internet, where people were kind of naïve, and you like published an article by Alex Berenson on COVID vaccines and you were like, “He used to be a reporter for the New York Times”, and people will be like, well, sounds legitimate to me, I have no reason to suspect this guy is has the biggest grossest axe to grind that anyone has ever seen.
Mike: And so his book is reviewed in The New York Review of books, favorably. It’s like, yeah, you know, he's pointed out some real problems on those campuses, but no context at all or no reason that we should be slightly skeptical of this.
Sarah: Also, there has never been a time in our country's history where this was something that were like kids getting too lefty and censorious with adults was like the largest issue we were facing. I didn't realize that this was an idea that accelerated and gained credence in the popular imagination at such a specific moment. I thought that it was more like a slow burn.
Mike: What's also incredible is there was no pushback to this at all. So I went into the New York Times archives and looked for the phrase ‘political correctness’. And in 1991, I found more than 30 stories on political correctness. One was pushing back and saying like, oh, this seems overblown everybody. All of the rest of them were just like political correctness has gone crazy on campuses. They published an op ed by a student who’s like, “My father was a Hollywood screenwriter during the red scare. And I'm seeing the same thing now on my campus.”
Sarah: Are you, or are your fellow students being blackballed for being homosexuals?
Mike: Exactly! But it's like nobody in the sort of establishment media felt any need to do any, both sides reporting on this. It’s like they drop this entire both sides act the minute it's something that fits their priors of like a college campus.
Sarah: I feel like one of the key questions here is like, if you look at journalism, you know, in different eras through history, it's like who is able to be a source, and who is able to be a subject? Because Dinesh D'Souza should be a subject. He clearly has an axe to grind. He's coming from a place of obvious bias, he has a long history of priors which show he's not interested in producing objective journalism in any way. And so he's a subject within a culture where he's not a source.
Mike: Yeah. And this is what drives me nuts. You easily could have written a cover story for The Atlantic saying, “Conservatives are getting worked up about this thing that doesn't exist”. Like, that could have been a really interesting cover story.
So for the rest of this episode, we are going to do a Jeff Foxworthy structure of various signs that you might be a moral panic. So we are going to walk through a bunch of these cover stories and excerpts from a bunch of these books, and go through sort of the tropes that show up over and over again. I spent weeks reading this absolute sewage, and I'm going to try not to spend like seven hours telling you all about it.
Sarah: No, I really want to hear all about it. So you just go ahead and don't hold back.
Okay. So we're going to start with an infamous New York Magazine story called, Are You Politically Correct? Sending you the cover.
Sarah: I hope it has a Cosmo type quiz. Oh boy. Okay. So it's got a white lady looking stressed on the cover and it says, Are You Politically Correct? And then in text over her face, it has several lines of like what she's stressing out about. Like, am I guilty of doing these things? So she says, Am I guilty of racism, sexism, classism? Am I guilty of ageism, ableism, lookism? Am I logo-centric? Do I say Indian instead of Native American, pet instead of animal companion? By John Taylor.
Mike: So I want to dive into this pet versus animal companion thing. This drives me nuts. So throughout the political correctness panic, a lot of it is about vocabulary. This really starts with the shift from black to African-American. There were a lot of white anxieties about these sort of word shifts. And Indian to Native American, a lot of minority groups were pushing for updated language at the time. Like this was a thing that happened in the 1990’s.
Sarah: Lesbian instead of witch.
Mike: That one stuck. You have to remember this from the 1990’s. Remember how many parodies there were, where it was like, instead of ‘bald’ you have to call them ‘follicly challenged’.
Sarah: Yes. Oh my God. Yes.
Mike: It was so fucking hacky.
Sarah: And it was a lazy comedy writing thing. And I, and I think there is a whole kind of cultural category of stuff that lingers longer than it makes sense for it too, because it lends itself well to like lazy, like sit-com or late night jokes, people in the world have to write a certain number of jokes per week. And there are ideas that, that I think lend themselves well to like getting people to laugh. Not necessarily because your joke is funny, but because they're like, yes, I am also annoyed.
Mike: You're like, that has the structure of a joke.
Sarah: Yes. People also respond to structure.
Mike: It's worth noting that a lot of these quote unquote demands from the sort of politically correct people were fake. They started out as satire, and then they showed up in these articles of like. “The libs want you to say this.” One of the things that shows up in a bunch of these articles is that they want you to say ‘fresh person’ instead of freshman’.
Sarah: Oh, okay. No one, no one wanted that. You're supposed to call them a ‘frosh’.
Mike: So the one about sort of, you're supposed to say animal companion instead of pet. No one was asking for that. I actually looked for articles for any evidence that there was an actual movement asking for this at the time. And I found nothing. Was it possible that somebody deep cut animal rights movement was asking for this somewhere in the country? Sure. But you can't just treat a random, fringe demand as if it's some sort of imperative.
In these articles there's this constant invocation of like the libs, want you to say this? And it's like, well, who specifically wants me to say, ‘animal companion’ instead of ‘pet’, and who is going to scold me if I say ‘pet’? Those people don't exist.
Sarah: And it's funny too, because there's some language that at one time I'm sure was considered like annoying and politically incorrect, and now is just part of language like firefighter or senior citizen. Language changes and people introduce stuff they want to try out. And some of it sticks and some of it doesn't and some of it works and some of it doesn't. And yeah, that's what language is.
Mike: So our sort of Jeff Foxworthy category here is, you might be a moral panic if you are using made up anecdotes. So we are going to do a reading from this article. So this is kind of a long excerpt, but it's important to dive into this to get the mechanics of how these anecdotes work. So can you read the first couple of paragraphs?
Sarah: Yes. “’Racist. The man is a racist, a racist!’ Such denunciations haunted Stephan Thernstrom for weeks. Whenever he walked through the campus that spring, down Harvard's brick paths, under the arched gates, he found it hard not to imagine the pointing fingers, the whispers, ‘Racist, there goes the racist.’ It was hellish. This persecution.”
How has this not satire?
Mike: I know. And also keep in mind, we are centering a conservative who is being accused of racism. This is the protagonist of this entire story.
Sarah: “Thernstrom couldn't sleep. His nerves were frayed, his temper raw. He was making his family miserable. And the worst thing was that he didn't know who was calling him a racist or why.”
But if they're all whispering it at him, like, can't he see them?
Mike: Okay. Just to butt in with some like early debunking here, he later says, this entire thing is fabricated. Nobody ever called him a racist. It was happening in his head, but it wasn't actually happening. I know.
Sarah: This is why I think we should have less emphasis on having an attention grabbing first paragraph. Sometimes it's okay to have an attention like gently shoulder tapping first paragraph.
Okay. “Thernstrom, 56, a professor at Harvard University for 25 years, is considered one of the preeminent scholars of the history of race relations in America. For several years, Thernstrom and another professor, Bernard Bailyn, taught an undergraduate lecture course on the history of race relations in the United States called, Peopling of America. Both professors are regarded as very much in the academic mainstream and both have solid liberal democratic credentials.
But all of a sudden in the fall of 1987, articles began to appear in the Harvard Crimson, accusing Thernstrom and Bailyn of racial insensitivity in the Peopling of America. The sources for the articles are anonymous, the charge is vague, but they continue to be repeated.
Finally, through the intervention of another professor, two students from the lecture course came forward and identify themselves as the sources for the articles. When asked to explain their grievances, they presented the professors with a six page letter. Bailyn's crime had been to read from the diary of a Southern planter without giving equal time to the recollections of the slave. This, to the students, amounted to a covert defense of slavery. Baylin who's won two Pulitzer prizes had pointed out during the lecture that no journals, diaries, or letters written by slaves had ever been found.
Mike: I know. In the nineties you can just say stuff in articles. You could just say stuff.
Sarah: For the record, that's not true. Anyway, I know Frederick Douglas kind of… okay. Anyway.
“He had explained to the class that all they could do was read the planter's diary and use it to speculate about the experience of slaves. But that failed to satisfy the complaining students. Since they were right, of course. I said that. “Thernstrom’s failures, according to the students, were almost systematic. He had to begin with use the word ‘Indians’ instead of ‘Native Americans’, for instance. Tried to point out that he had said very clearly in class that ‘Indian’ was the word most Indians themselves use, but that was irrelevant to the students. Thernstrom was also accused of referring to an Oriental relation, but most degree obviously Thernstrom had endorsed in class Patrick Moynihan's emphasis on the breakup of the black family as a cause of persistent black poverty. The semester was pretty much over by then, but during the spring, when Thernstrom sat down to plan the course for the following year, he had to think about how he would combat charges of racism, should they crop up again. He decided that to protect himself in case he was misquoted or had comments taken out of context, he would need to tape all his lectures. Then he decided that he would have to tape his talks with students in his office. That was plainly ridiculous. Thernstrom instead decided it would be easier just to drop the course altogether. Peopling of America is no longer offered at Harvard.” I feel like we should play Taps for Peopling of America.
Mike: So what do you make of this story?
Sarah: I just think it's so sad that two students in the history of this guy’s his entire career, decided that they didn't like some of the language and the arguments he was using in his course. And he responded by deciding to no longer teach the course, as opposed to just thinking critically about what seemed like a few very minor elements. I just feel like this is the most dramatic thing I have ever read. It’s just like the amount of like gravity and sadness that this author is futilely trying to inject into this story of just like getting upset and taking criticism a little bit too far, or maybe taking it the correct amount and like clearing up that space for someone else to take the course. Although I presume it'll be another white guy. It just, it’s this…
Mike: I know.
Sarah: I just, people read this, and they circled things and they were like, “I think you need an Oxford comma here. But ultimately, they were like, yes, we are printing this in our magazine.
Mike: It's so fascinating to me because if you read between the lines, it's clear that he is the only person they interviewed for this.
Sarah: Yes. I'm going to hazard a guess that this author either pitched or was told to write something on the premise of, you know, political correctness has gone too far and it's scary. And then just ended up with these - to use one of your words - nothing burger anecdotes, and just was like, pickles, pickles, pickles.
Mike: So do you want to hear what actually happened? Do you wanna hear the real story behind them?
Sarah: Yes. More than anything.
Mike: The former chair of the Harvard history department, whose name is John Wiener, he writes a book where he investigates all of this. So this author, Stephen Thernstrom, in 1987 he's teaching this class, The Peopling of America, and one of his students whose name is Paula Ford is offended by the content. He said he's talking about how the breakup of the black family is the reason why poverty rates are higher in black people. And according to Paula, he said black men beat their wives and then their wives kick them out. If you don't believe me, read Toni Morrison. This is something that's going on like throughout the course, he's just saying things that she finds really upsetting. And at this time there's a lot of sort of discussions about race going on at Harvard, and there's something called the Committee on Race Relations. She goes to this committee and she's like, “I'm just really upset by what's going on in the classroom”. And this committee says like, we're an advisory body and we mostly handle sort of disputes between students. We don't really deal with sort of course contents, but why don't you go talk to the professor?
Sarah: Why don't you as a student, go have a one-to-one with this fucking guy's been teaching this course for empty trillium years and who I'm sure. We'll take with great equanimity, having a student say to his face that she has doubts or grievances about some of the stuff he's saying. It'll be great for you and everyone, and we're Harvard and do it yourself.
Mike: She actually goes to his office and they do actually have a talk. He erases this from his account of the events. So her account of this is that she doesn't at any point, call him racist. She doesn't at any point, tell him to stop teaching the class. She's like, I just need you to know that this is really upsetting to me, and this doesn't match my experience. And they sort of have a reasonably civilized discussion. They sort of agree to disagree. And somehow, a reporter from The Harvard Crimson, which is the campus newspaper, finds out about this. The Harvard Crimson writes a story about this where it's just like a pretty factual thing. It's published on February 9th, 1988 and the headline is, Students Criticized Class as Racially Insensitive. The reporter interviews Paula, although it doesn't give her name. The reporter also - because he's sort of trying to investigate this - he calls around to other students in the class and there's very few black students in the class. So one of the students who is named in the article is a woman named Wendy Grantham, who cameo alert, is one of the stars of The Wire. She plays Shardene on The Wire. Yeah. Because it's fucking Harvard. And like everybody goes on to do stuff.
Sarah: I know. Like everyone who went to Harvard, they were all roommates with each other and then they have like six careers, or they're they get tenure and their nightmares apparently.
Mike: So anyway, she's in his class, the reporter calls her, she answers and she's like, “Yeah, you know what? It was a little bit insensitive.” She had never gone to this committee on race relations. She had never felt the need to go to his office. But she was like, yeah, you know what? Now that you ask, I did find it racially insensitive. After the story comes out, Wendy also goes to his office again, she does everything she can to coddle this guy. She's like, “I don't think you're racist. I don't think you should stop teaching the course. I just want to let you know that I'm a little bit upset by this.”
Sarah: I guess like the students are being the adults in the room and they're like doing everything to kind of roll out the carpet for a very civilized conversation.
Mike: Yes. And so February 10th, this is two days after The Harvard Crimson article comes out, Thernstrom writes a letter to The Harvard Crimson where he accuses the students of conducting a witch hunt. He uses those words. He says, “My quarrel is not with The Crimson, your story is balanced and objective. My quarrel is with the students who launched a witch hunt instead of attempting to engage in rational discussion about difficult intellectual issues.”
Sarah: They did, they fucking did. Because he's like, it's not civilized because I feel stressed and it's like, feeling that as part of learning and part of changing.
Mike: This is super petty, but I love it. So remember in the New York Magazine article how it says that like starting in 1987 there were a series of articles criticizing Thernstrom. John Wiener goes back to the archives and finds out that the majority of the articles in the Harvard Crimson were supporting Thernstrom. They were like, this is political correctness. We think these students are being militant, but Thernstrom is ignoring all of the support that he got from the Harvard Crimson.
Sarah: So if you ask someone with a grievance how something went down three years ago, like, I don't think it's fair to expect documentary truth or to present it to people that way.
Mike: Yeah. The most incredible thing is John Wiener also interviews Thernstrom himself and he asked, “What did you actually want to have happened? Because this wasn't students necessarily censoring you, it feels like the students were actually at every opportunity using the official channels.” Like this is debate.
And so what Thernstrom says, and I cannot get over this, is he says, “Well, what I would have liked is for the Dean of students to write an open letter in support of me and saying that students shouldn't make these complaints.”
Sarah: He's not, the Dean is Stephan Thernstrom.
Mike: This is what’s nuts to me. It's like this whole thing is about free speech and open debate. And then you're like, “Oh yeah, I want somebody really high up in the university administration to take my side in an intellectual debate.” What sort of message does that actually send for debating the content of a course?
Sarah: But you're not allowed to.
Mike: Exactly. This is just what is so amazing to me and shows up in so many of these stories is that what is cast as like students being over-sensitive and they can't handle intellectual diversity or whatever, turns out to be middle aged white dudes who cannot handle the fucking slightest pushback. We're talking about a guy who received one complaint from a student who came to his office to talk to him, and then he himself voluntarily canceled the course. He took his ball and went home. And yet we're supposed to be like, “All of these kids today, they're so over-sensitive”. Like what?
Sarah: I think it's like, it's mostly just about this idea that adults are supposed to have all the power and young adults who are technically also adults are supposed to have none. And this just isn't fair. Like if you have tenure, you're supposed to just be able to get up there and, short of whipping out your Johnson, you're supposed to be able to do whatever you want. Right?
Mike: I think 75% of this panic is just, “kids these days”.
Sarah: Yeah. It always is. It's always like these kids are like Tik Tok dances and what's that about? You know, there's moral panics about that.
Mike: Exactly. Like, this is what it's a pushback to. It's like, I should be able to teach my course exactly the way I've done it. And nobody should be able to talk back to me. Like that's what this is.
Sarah: The young people are getting too young.
Mike: So this nothing burger of a story shows up in, I found at least five other stories, where they invoke this as an example of sort of SJWs on campus overreacting to things. So the New York Review of Books calls it, “an illustration of the attack on freedom led by minorities”. The National Review says, “thus a distinguished Harvard historian will no longer give his course on slavery because some black students claim to have been offended.”
Sarah: Claim to have been offended. Like they weren't really, they just had a Machiavellian scheme to get him to stop teaching it for some reason.
Mike: Another one of these panic books says, “Professor Stephan Thernstrom, a distinguished professor of history at Harvard, was forced to drop an undergraduate course after he was harassed because he used the term ‘Indian’ instead of ‘native American’.”
Sarah: Right. So it's like all of these one-sentence anecdotes are replicating the narrative of how it felt to him, which is, I feel like. He received a very slight degree of pushback and it made him feel really bad. And then we're hearing about that experience, but that's Stephan's relationship to Stephan.
Mike: We can’t cover all of them because we'd be here all day, but like, I cannot overstate how many of the anecdotes in these fucking panic stories fall apart under the slightest scrutiny.
Sarah: Can you talk about some more of them? Can we do like a speed round?
Mike: So, okay. There's one in The Wall Street Journal that talks about how a sort of a “controversial” - we all know what that means - speaker was invited to campus, and there's like a mob of 200 students who shut him down and won't let him speak. And they compare it to Brown shirts.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: In the story they say “they harass the speaker, calling him a white dork devil, broke a framed the picture he was showing to the audience, and punched a student outside the hall.” And so it turns out that there were in fact 200 people in this hall and it was very crowded because there were rumors that a KKK person was going to speak. So like a huge number of students, especially black students, showed up. So it's like, standing room only type of crowd. But the only disruption was literally one guy, one guy stood up and started shouting, and everyone else in the crowd told him to shut up and made him leave.
Sarah: So what, okay, so like how do you even get to this other version from that?
Mike: Because the way that it's written up is they only ask one person who was there and they don't do any basic fact checking, of course. And also what I love about this, is this is an example of the opposite. It's a crowd of like super-duper SJW students who not only let a racist guy give a speech, but they also stop somebody who disrupts the speech. This is actually an example of like left wing students being extremely capable of open debate and extremely capable of hearing inconvenient ideas that offend them.
Sarah: We can't possibly talk about college students doing that. We have to always find reasons to be annoyed at them.
Mike: There’s also one, I was thinking of you and I read this just cause it's, it's so predictable. There's one where there's a professor at. I forget what campus is that he goes to the swimming pool in like snorkels and fins and he's accused of ogling swimmers. He'll go, he'll sort of be in the pool not really swimming laps, but he'll just sort of float there and look at women. The pool eventually kicks him out because the pool is like, this is gross. And then this becomes this massive cause celebre because they're like, “Oh, you can't even look at women, looking at women is sexual harassment now.” But then the woman who actually filed the complaint to the swimming pool says, “He actually followed me for four laps while I was swimming. So, because he has fins on, he can go really fast. So I was doing my crawl stroke and he just stayed parallel with me, like three feet away, for four laps.”
Sarah: Oh, that's so gross.
Mike: It's so gross, dude. Yeah, you're going to lose your pool privileges, guy.
Sarah: Yeah. Unlike free speech, pools are a privilege.
Mike: That’s a very reasonable punishment. For like a very clear creep behavior.
Sarah: Yes. There isn't an inalienable right to be a creep in a pool.
Mike: But so this is again, these things just travel around as these one sentence truncated stories. They're like, “Did you hear about the mob of 200 kids that like almost killed a speaker?”
Sarah: Like, okay. It's funny too, because like even the exaggerated version doesn't sound that bad. It's like, I'm kind of in favor of attacking Nazis and running minor-league sex pass out of pools. So the fact that no Nazi was attacked, and it was like a medium weight sex past is I'm just like, Oh, well, yeah.
Mike: Okay. So the second, “You might be a moral panic if”, all of your anecdotes are extremely low stakes. So I'm sending you an excerpt from a book, and you have to guess what book it is from.
Sarah: I bet it’s not Capture the Castle.
Mike: I know, unfortunately.
Sarah: “A few years ago, radical students at Stanford University protested against the required course and the great texts of Western civilization. They organized a March led by the Reverend Jesse Jackson with a chant, ‘Hey, Hey, ho, h,. western culture has got to go’. And Stanford capitulated and abolished the Western civilization requirement. It was replaced with watered down courses in which books were supposed to be examined from the perspective of race, class, and gender.” I like how those are in quotes as if those aren't real things.
Mike: I know.
Sarah: “And readings from Saint Augustine and John Locke are interspersed with such works as the autobiography of Guatemalan Marxist guerrilla fighter Rigoberta Menchu, and a documentary on Navajo Indians entitled, Our Cosmos, Our sheep, Our bodies, Ourselves. Which I'm supposed to be like, that sounds terrible.
Mike: I know. Do you want to guess what this is from?
Sarah: Is the author a dude?
Sarah: Oh. Is it Alan Dershowitz?
Mike: Ooh, very close.
Sarah: Is it F. Lee Bailey?
Mike: No, not that close.
Sarah: Okay. I give up.
Mike: This is by Rush Limbaugh.
Sarah: Oh my God. Okay.
Mike: Rush Limbaugh actually was one of the great pioneers of this kind of moral panic framing.
Sarah: He was trapping beavers in the moral panic interior before most of us have seen it.
Mike: I mean one thing he did on his show very consistently was it was sort of like the ridiculous liberal of the week, right? It would always be like, there's a women's studies professor in Iowa who said this dumb thing. And John Wilson, when I interviewed him, said that one of the things that Rush did that was very smart and has become increasingly central to the Republican party, is to link these sort of random campus activists to the larger Democratic party and the larger sort of left movement.
And so here you have this invocation of Jesse Jackson who's helping these students get rid of Western civilization. These kids aren’t going to be reading John Locke anymore.
Sarah: Well they are, but they're also going to be reading a Marxist, so that doesn't even count.
Mike: So this fucking story of Stanford and its Western civilization thing was a huge deal. Newsweek had a story on it called, Say Goodbye, Socrates.
Sarah: Honestly, I cannot believe that people woke up in a country, which every day has had huge glaring problems, sick, dying babies, all of it. And it's like, I am going to be upset about what is happening at Stanford.
Mike: I know. And there's a quote from the chair of Penn State's English department. This is a real quote. He says, “I would bet that The Color Purple is taught in more English courses today than all of Shakespeare's plays combined.”
Sarah: I mean, no, that's not true. So like, if that were true, it wouldn't be terrible, but like, it's not like every state has an Alice Walker Festival where people perform the works of Alice Walker on an infinite loop.
Mike: I'm going to sort of skip through this part, but like as usual, this anecdote did not happen. So it is true that at the time Stanford had like a sort of standard curriculum that every student, regardless of their major, had to take. And in the late 1980s, early 1990s, black students started saying, “Hey, uh, this is like really white and really Western. And we should probably expand it beyond just Western culture and just these sort of same authors that we've already gotten a million times.” And Stanford staff was like, “Yeah, that actually sounds good.“ So there was like a three-year long process they designed this thing with like eight different tracks so that kids could pick which emphasis they wanted or whatever.
And so during this process, it is true that black students held a protest where they were chanting, “Hey, Hey, ho, ho, western culture has got to go.” They were saying Western culture because Western culture is the name of the curriculum. They weren't saying like the concept of Western culture has to go.
Sarah: I was able to figure that out from context clues, even reading the Rush Limbaugh version, because I'm not, I don't even know what but I'm not that thing.
Mike: Also, Jesse Jackson was on campus, but he actually talked the students out of doing the demonstration because he thought that they should be working in the system. Eventually there's like a vote, 39-4, to modify the curriculum into something called Culture, Ideas and Values, which is like a broader thing. But all of the tracks still include, this is listed in John Wilson's book, the Bible, Freud, Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Augustine. But then what I just cannot get over is how fucking low the stakes of this anecdote are. A random school that a vanishingly tiny percentage of students attend every year is changing its degree requirements. Like why is this a story?
Sarah: It's going to be the tipping point for all of culture. I mean, I also find it funny that like conservatives, for the most part, like they only want to talk about the “Western Canon” when they are acting like it would be destructive to it for students to also read other things as well. Like they never want to read these books. They do not care about Shakespeare. They don't care about money for the arts. They don't care about, you know, really, even the concept. Of reading and developing critical thinking is something you do in college. And that that's part of the reason you read these books to begin with, because if you're a critical thinker, then you don't buy these arguments.
Mike: But it's also really frustrating, because as John Wilson points out in his book, the number of universities requiring courses in Western civilization actually rose during this period.
Sarah: But you can't tell that if you go anecdote by anecdote.
Mike: Also, I mean, just to like belabor this, if a school wants to have a curriculum that you think is really wacky, students can just not go to that school.
Sarah: No, everyone has to go to Stanford, Mike, it's our jobs.
Mike: I cannot express how many of these anecdotes have these absurdly low stakes? Like there's one that The National Review calls “draconian” when a student is given two years of probation for calling another student homophobic slurs. One of the other low stakes anecdotes that again shows up in like 50 of these stories, is there's a student who puts like a sign on her dorm room door that says, “the following groups will be shot onsite”, and she lists like preppies and hippies and bimbos. And then at the bottom of the list, she lists homos. This is like very clearly in violation of the school's hate speech policy. And so they asked her to move off campus for two years. Like that's her punishment. And this goes around as like this profound violation of her rights and overreach of the hate speech codes. And it's like, that's really not a harsh punishment. Her parents live 15 minutes away from the campus, and so she just commutes every day. Like that's it.
But what I love about this story and what I wanted to tell you is that this gets cast as like there's sort of the gay militant activists and like, look how far they've come. But it was actually two girls who identified as bimbos who come forward.
Sarah: Oh my god! That is the best twist.
Mike: They're like, the bimbo community feels assaulted by this.
Sarah: That's amazing. If you are out there and you are one of those bimbos, just like, major snaps.
Mike: So the third sign that you might be a moral panic is when random ass shit starts getting taken way out of context. So this is where we get to the section about date rape. I feel like we've kind of forgotten now like how controversial the concept of date rape was in the 1990s.
Mike: So have you ever heard of somebody named Katie Costner?
Mike: Okay. This is a really rough story, by the way, so buckle in. So Katie Costner is a freshman at the college of William and Mary. The first week she meets a guy and he's nice and he's cute and they sort of chat in class. He asked her out for dinner, they go out to dinner and he orders in French and it's a really nice dinner and they're super-duper clicking and he invites her back to his room and she says, “No, like that seems a little sketchy. But, why don't you come back to my room?” So the minute they get to her room, he reaches over and starts unbuttoning her shirt. She's like, “Oh no, not cool. Don't do that.” And then he just sort of starts undressing. And she does the thing that like women are trained to do. She's like, Oh, that's funny, she starts like throwing stuffed animals at him. And so he basically just like comes over and like overpowers her and pulls her to the ground. He's like a big guy, she's relatively small. And this is a description of the event that she later writes for the BBC. She says, “I think no one ever told this guy, “No.” I think he had a ginormous ego and he had always got what he wanted in life. I tried to be nice. I wasn't trying to kick him where it counted or throw him out of my room. I just didn't want him to go so fast. I tried to get him off me, unsuccessfully, trying not to hurt his feelings. I kept saying no, and please get off. And he kept saying, “Calm down, everything is going to be fine.” And that was the moment when I lost my virginity against my will.”
She goes to the health clinic and they give her a bottle of sleeping pills. She eventually tells her dad that she was raped and he says, “It wouldn't have happened if you hadn't let him into your room, Katie.” She talks to the cops and the cops say there's a tiny chance of convicting him because it's basically a, he said/she said story. She tries to use the campus complaint mechanism, the school admits the fact that he had sex with her against her will and they sentenced him to he can't go to her residence hall for the rest of the semester. And after this happens, the Dean says, “You two make such a nice couple and he really likes you. So maybe you should get back together.” She has like no other recourse so she eventually goes to the media with the story, and it becomes like kind of a big deal in the early nineties. She's on the cover of Time Magazine in 1990.
Sarah: Yeah. And I remember the first time I saw that cover, I was researching something that led me through it. That was kind of amazing to see that like there was a Time Magazine cover essentially about the discovery of date rape.
Mike: Yeah. It was a huge deal. What's amazing is that, so there's now like this sort of nationwide debate over date rape, but it mostly gets put into the frame of sort of like, does it exist or not?
So I downloaded one of Camille Paglia’s books where she talks about specifically these campus rape cases. Do you want me to read you an excerpt? It's so bad, Sarah.
She says, “College men are at their hormonal peak. They've just left their mothers and are questing for their male identity. In groups they're dangerous. A woman going to a fraternity party is walking into testosterone flats. If she goes, she should be armed with resolute alertness. She should arrive with girlfriends and leave with them. A girl who lets herself get dead drunk at a fraternity party is a fool. A girl who goes upstairs with a brother at a fraternity party is an idiot. Feminists call this blaming the victim. I call it common sense.”
Sarah: I really hate this worldview where like never go to a room with a man where sex might happen, because you were agreeing to P&V, and if he rapes you, it is your fault. And then it's like, but obviously still have relationships with men, even though they're all murderers and rapists by nature. And it's like, your worldview means that I should never talk to another man again, honestly.
Mike: Yes. And it's also, she never considered the licensing structure that gives to men. Because as long as she invites you to her room, you can do literally anything.
Sarah: And also it's like, it is agreeing to let men in America just be rapists. Yes. See, it is not trying to get them to not commit rape, it's like don't go near them, don't get raped.
Mike: This is what's so moral panicky about these articles that come out about it at the time, they don't do any work to actually humanize or make real the problem.
So the New York Magazine article that we were reading earlier, it says Tthe eagerness to see all women as victims, to describe all male behavior with images of rape and violation, may shed some light on the phenomenon of date rape, a legitimate issue that has been exaggerated and distorted by a small group with a specific political agenda.”
Sarah: Who's saying this and why are they so sure?
Mike: Well, this is the thing. I mean, the story does something that you see in so many stories that come out at a time where there'll be like, “Oh yeah, it's a legitimate issue. Like date rape, it's a legitimate issue.” Then all of these stories shift straight into the “excesses of campus feminists who are responding to campus.”
Sarah: That's really sucks because like, if you look at a nation's worth of like 18 to 22 year old women, like yeah, some of them will say silly things.
Mike: Yes, exactly. And like many of these schools didn't have any policies on this before some schools are going to write policies that are not great worded or don't have all of the things outlined, or maybe go a little bit too far.
Sarah: Or like a radical student group will propose legislation because there's just nothing as the alternative.
Mike: Yeah. And also what happens in these cases, especially around date rape, is they will pull totally out of context direct quotes from these policies, and then call them indicative of the beliefs of the entire feminist movement.
So there's the infamous Antioch Sexual Offense Policy, which says “verbal consent should be obtained with each new level of physical and or sexual conduct in any given interaction, regardless of who initiates it.” It says specifically, “asking ‘do you want to have sex with me” is not enough. The request for consent must be specific to each.”
Sarah: You know what? It's not a terrible idea.
Mike: There's also one at Swarthmore where Swarthmore makes a video, like an instructional video, where one sentence in the video says, ‘acquaintance rape spans a spectrum of incidents and behaviors ranging from crimes, legally defined as rape to verbal harassment and inappropriate innuendo’”.
Sarah: Right. And that's like what the person who wrote the video thought.
Mike: Yes. And also, it's just a video at Swarthmore, which like most people don't even know where or what that is. And so National Review classifies the Antioch policy as like you have to get written consent to have sex. There's a Chicago Tribune article where the headline is, Should Regretted Sex Be Classified as Date Rape?
Sarah: That video at Swarthmore is president now.
Mike: So this is one thing that I think structurally, this is very important for moral panics is you often get the sort of specific wording from laws or specific wording from like background documents and it's like, look, leaked documents prove the real agenda of feminists. But what people note very quickly is that no one was ever shown this video at Swarthmore. It was like a video that they made and like maybe a class or two saw it. It wasn't like given to every single person. It wasn't mandatory. And also, we've all seen a million fucking training videos that we cannot remember the content of.
Sarah: Do you think that everyone who watches that Wendy's employee training video about how to make hot beverages is being brainwashed by it?
Mike: Have I ever lifted anything with my legs instead of my back?
Sarah: No people always do everything they say.
Mike: I say that we have this like structural mismatch where the accusation is basically like, look, feminists want to believe that innuendo, any sort of flirting, is basically the same as date rape. That's the accusation against the feminists. Which is like a fucking wild accusation. Right? Like it's very obviously just a pretty out there view.
And then the only evidence that feminists have this wild view of sexual behavior is there's a sentence in a Swarthmore training video. It's an extraordinary claim followed by completely irrelevant evidence.
Sarah: Well, and it's also, it's like responding to the existence of an idea somewhere in the world as if it is a massive threat to you and to your way of life. And it's like, can't someone, can't a Swarthmore student or employee or whoever have a thought without you organizing a movement around it. Like, we don't know if anyone else agreed with us. I would imagine this was kind of produced as like a video they were possibly going to use maybe like five people had input on it and then they're like, Oh, maybe not. You know? And that's just like, who cares?
Mike: And also with the Antioch policy, it's not clear it was ever actually used. The fact that these policies exist, there's still a long process of punishing students or expelling students under these policies. And part of the process is challenging the policies themselves. So like, it's not as if like Antioch writes these policies and all of a sudden men are being like carted away to jail. This happens over and over again where conservatives will freak out about these sort of policies, like there's a lot of hate speech policies being written at the time because a lot of universities didn't have hate speech policies. So anything underneath like a physical assault, like something that rises to a criminal act just wasn't prohibited. So a lot of schools start writing these policies and inevitably some of them have like silly or imprecise or slightly overblown wording. Like there's one at the University of Connecticut that includes inconsiderate jokes or inappropriately directed laughter. Of course this is in like a long list of things that could be construed as abusive speech.
Sarah: Right. And it's like, no, they're sending students to prison for laughing now.
Mike: But literally, that's almost a direct quote from the way that this is framed.
Sarah: The libs want to criminalize laughter. I mean, I also feel like this is a way of stirring up resentment at the elites, right? The idea that people who go to liberal arts colleges like very verily, they're the elites, they're the Illuminati. They're the ones that are controlling culture and it's not the people that have all the money who overwhelmingly skewed politically conservative.
Mike: Okay. So last Jeff Foxworthy, the final sign that you're in the middle of a moral panic, is when anecdotes rest on the idea of over sensitive libs. So we are going to watch a clip from one of your favorite shows. It's going to make you feel weird.
Sarah: Oh yeah, I know this guy. Three, two, one, go.
“We’re going to be sketching the female nude today. Ah, Sylvia, if you’ll please.”
“Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Dwyer. But, uh, I, uh, I took this class to learn how to sketch, not the ogle some poor female nude.”
“Oh, wow. Well, this isn't about ogling. No, no. We're just going to observe line and shadow and form.”
“And we're going to use economic repression to once again exploit a woman's body.”
“I don't think that's what we're doing here”.
No, no. Excuse me. Ah, sister, are you being paid?”
“I rest my case.”
“Well, of course she's being paid. She's a professional artist/model. I see no reason why we shouldn't use her.”
“Use her, use her… I wish you would hear yourself, sir. Remember, language is a virus.”
“Well, I certainly didn't mean to infect anyone.”
“That’s no excuse. Sexism in any context is never appropriate.”
Mike: What'd you think?
Sarah: So the sketch is from 1992 and it feels like it is addressing the same fears of young people that people have today, which is kind of discouraging.
Mike: I know.
Sarah: Basically it is a life drawing class led by Dave Foley, who is an actual tiny baby at the time. And his students started protesting the fact that they are oppressing a woman by having her pose nude for them to draw. And then he like misspeaks and they all pile on him and then they all walk out. And I do feel like that's the basic idea of the reactionary leftist colleague student, that they’re waiting with bated breath to jump all over someone for misspeaking in a fundamentally well-intentioned way. Like that's the story that the New York Magazine article is trying to lead with.
Mike: I mean, I feel like this is an archetype that shows up in a lot of these moral panics. The idea that you're going to say’ Merry Christmas’ to somebody who's an atheist and they're going to like have a meltdown or they're going to like accuse you of something.
Sarah: Yes. I can try and get you fired. But yeah, I guess the idea that people are going around, like wanting you to upset them, like that feels like the major projected fear.
Mike: Exactly. And I feel like in my life I've maybe met like two people like that. I think I've met four, but you know, Portland.
Mike: Yeah. Like I absolutely do believe that like some version of this exists, but it's extremely frustrating that this is the center of so many of these moral panics as if there's like a large population of people just waiting to just break down and/or lash out. When most people when they're offended are just like quietly offended or annoyed and move on.
Sarah: I also feel like if that stereotype depicts anyone accurately, it is like a brand new college student who is like rich and guilty, and has just learned of the wide, wide world of social justice and wants to yell at their parents. I know parents definitely get yelled at a lot, but that's not entirely political.
Mike: This is nuts to me. And the only person I've seen actually point this out is John Wilson in his book, is that throughout the 1990s, the threats to free expression were straightforwardly coming from the right. So it's funny to me that they use a nude modeling class in this sketch when there were actually a huge number of nude modeling classes at colleges that were canceled because Christian conservatives complained. Like this was an actual thing that happened a lot.
And he points out that in this abysmal Time article from 1993, he says, “Under the watchful eye of the PC police mainstream culture has become cautious, sanitized, scared of its own shadow network TV targeted by antiviolence crusaders and nervous about offending advertisers has purged itself of what little edge and controversy it once had.” And it's like, that's not the PC police. That's Christians. Christians were trying to cancel the Teletubbies, and 2LiveCrew, and LAPD Blue, and Janet Jackson, and Harry Potter. And like, it's always coming from the right. And somehow this gets invoked completely historically to just be like left wing students handle it.
Sarah: Projection is just the law of the land here.
Mike: It's unbelievable. There's this infamous article from 2015 in New York Magazine, where it talks about how there was a performance of The Vagina Monologues that was canceled because of trans activism. That it's like, not all women have vaginas. And as John Wilson points out, that the actual threat to The Vagina Monologues is Christians. The Vagina Monologues has been canceled on like dozens of college campuses. There are literally Christian organizations who are specifically dedicated to canceling performances of The Vagina Monologues.
Sarah: That's amazing. Like why spend that much energy canceling monologues?
Mike: Same thing. Like if you look at the list of banned books in America, like 9 out of 10 of them are LGBTQ content. Like this is what people are committing.
Sarah: Yeah. Heather Has Two Mommies, like famously, is one of the most censored books in America.
Mike: Right? One thing that popped out to me and I want to do some extra research about was during this Harvard dust-up that we went into a week before administrators found a swastika on campus.
Sarah: Swastika Schmastika. This professor felt a little bit bad.
Mike: So I'm going to read you some examples. All of these are from John Wilson's, The Myth of Political Correctness. “At Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a student charged administrators with sexual harassment for telling him to ‘stay on top of your project’. The student felt this was sexual innuendo because God had given him a vision that he was being harassed. At Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, music professor Douglas de Bianco was accused of sexual and cultural harassment because he criticized Christianity and talked about phallic symbols. On December 6th, 1989, Mark Lapine armed himself and took over an engineering class at the university of Montreal. He separated the female students from the men, shouted, ‘You’re all a bunch of feminists’, and proceeded to murder 14 women over a span of 20 minutes with a semi-automatic rifle before killing himself. Lapine had failed his engineering exams and believed that the women occupied his rightful place. A few days later at a vigil for the victims, a young, female, engineering students spoke out against the sexism among the engineering faculty, some people in the crowd chanted, ‘shoot the bitch’.”
Sarah: Oh, my God.
Mike: We're telling anecdotes about dudes losing their pool privileges for looking.
Sarah: And like survivors of a mass murder are told that they should have died with their friends. Like I cannot stress this enough, fuck everyone.
Mike: And like, there's also, I mean, you could go down the list of universities that have men in charge of giving tenure and like women being denied, tenure women being systematically, sexually harassed. It's wild to me that these problems were still absolutely lingering on college campuses, and yet the moral panic we had was about the people trying to stop them and being kind of irritating.
Sarah: And again, it's so cynical because like some of the people manufacturing, these stories have to have a cynical awareness that like, if you are selling a headline and selling a story, like you were appealing to the baser urges of your audience. Like you want to sell fear, snottiness, superiority, anxiety, like feelings of being better than someone and feelings of being under siege. And it's so much easier to sell a story of like, the kids are just demanding and annoying, so annoying than like, there are real problems with society and the kids are talking about them because they're right.
Mike: Yeah. And also, maybe the kids are annoying, but it's like being annoying in service of something. Correct. Versus being annoying in service of something bad. Like it's weird to not distinguish between those two things.
Sarah: Yes. There are so many reasons why you would be annoying, right? Like if you sink all your money in what I strongly suspect as a pyramid scheme. And I'm like, here's my case for why this is a pyramid scheme, that would be annoying because like I'm creating a lot of trouble for you by telling you the truth.
Mike: Yes, this is another one. This is really rough. One black student at the University of Chicago was harassed, threatened, assaulted, and called a stupid N-word by his fraternity brothers as a pledge in 1994. After the student newspaper described what had happened to him, the student was repeatedly harassed from nearly a year while he repeated the ass university officials to take action. Finally they responded by giving an informal warning to some of the fraternity brothers who had been harassing him, but no disciplinary hearing were held.
There's also, this is weird that it’s also at the University of Chicago, I don’t know what was going on there in the nineties. But there was something called ‘the great white brotherhood of the iron fist.’
Sarah: That's a girl group.
Mike: They would place personal ads in gay newspapers, and then when men would answer them - because oftentimes you'd have your name and return address - they would contact those people's wives and employers and saying, “We think he's a carrier of AIDS.” And then it turned out the two of the reporters for one of these conservative newspapers on campus knew about it and lied about their knowledge of it.
These are obviously anecdotes and they're obviously extreme anecdotes, but it's just fascinating to me that it's like the political correctness panic was all anecdotes. All the way down.
Sarah: It’s interesting that like during this time, college is becoming more expensive and we're approaching the crisis that we're fully inside of now. And this is a great diversion from all of that.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, the idea that there was some sort of her gemini of black, lesbian, gay people on college campuses, and you couldn't say anything against them and those views were being censored. It's just on its face, absurd. Like it wasn't even true that professors were particularly liberal at the time, it was about 50/50. This is one of the things that's amazing to me is that, you know, there's so much focus on like liberal arts schools and women's studies programs or whatever. But like school teaches other things. Like economics departments are not full of SJWs, physics departments, we have these bubbles within bubbles to find a place where conservatives are being victimized. Like you really have to look hard to find sectors of American life where conservatives are being victimized. But it's like the minute we find these tiny bubbles of bubbles of bubbles, then it's like, oh, this is the sign. This is the slippery slope we really need to worry about.
Sarah: And also like, if I were to go to a very conservative school, like Patrick Henry or something, and be like, “Hello, I'm a big Marxist”, people would try and convince me to not think what I think and would be snide with me at times. And like, that's the thing that happens. I feel like they wouldn't find that wrong if it were reversed.
Mike: Yeah. And it's also, I mean, it kind of brings us to the epilogue where the moral panic over political correctness ends up with a bunch of laws that defund universities. So the infamous Senator Larry Craig proposed legislation in 1991 that would withhold federal funding from any college that has a hate speech code? So again, it's like, we're freaking out about these like activists on campus, and like they made a video at Swarthmore. But actual law makers are doing things that restrict speech and don't get 1/10 of the outcry.
So like one of the reasons why universities continue to be defunded was this political correctness panic had a radicalizing effect on the GOP, especially state lawmakers who would find these cases. And oftentimes actual lawmakers would weigh in on these controversies. Like the University of Oklahoma tried to have an Anita Hill distinguished chair like funding for a professorship, and Republican lawmakers stepped in and basically forced the school not to do it.
Sarah: I feel like we could call this. I'm sure there exists a technical term for this already, but I'm going to call it the ‘Pearl effect’, where you just find this tiny little bit of grit somewhere in the world that justifies you, creating a whole reactionary culture against it.
Mike: I mean, to me, this is really a parable about the total blindness of the sort of centrist media institutions. That one thing you come across in a lot of these moral panic articles about campus leftist, whatever is like, it's this strategic argument. It's like, you know, you're giving ammunition, right? These students on Antioch campus, they're making us all look bad. They're giving ammunition to the right and they're making it harder for Democrats to win elections. But they never pointed that spotlight inward to say, well, okay, random campus activists doing random things, those only give ammunition to Republicans if we highlight them constantly. And if we repeat the Republican's framing of this total moral panic issue. There was never a strategic analysis of like, well, is it a good thing to write article after article after article about the random comings and goings of social justice advocates on a tiny number of college campuses, like, is that smart?
Sarah: I shouldn't know this much about like dining hall disputes at small liberal arts colleges.
Mike: The whole fucking time I was looking at this Harvard thing, I was like, why am I doing this? It's one professor that canceled a class. Like, why was this ever national news?
Sarah: It's important, Michael. This is my whole beef with journalism as story. Right? Like you go for the better story. Focus on the story. And then it's like, the truth is going to undermine your story a little bit always. And there's such a gray area between what people have always kind of done in journalism, and outright lying. And I think we're getting to the point where we have like less tolerance for that kind of stretching of the truth for rhetorical benefit and better storytelling. Which is fantastic, because if the only sources you can use to get news are worshiping at the alternative story, than they're excising truth that you actually deserve.
Mike: Right. I don't know. It just feels like such a sort of ongoing tragedy to me that, you know, so many times in these articles, you see this sort of like, well, obviously I'm for racial progress, obviously I'm for better rights for gay and lesbian people, but these activists are going too far. And it's like, well, if you're actually for those things and why don't you just spend time on those things?
It's weird to be like, well, I hate racism too, but here's another 3,000 word story on the excesses of black activist on some random campus. It's like, well, you can just ignore those people.
Sarah: If you’re pro-something, then you really, you should only speak up on it when you think there's too much of it. Like, I love taco trucks and I will be silent on the issue until I say there are too many taco trucks in Portland, this is too many.
Mike: I just think that the press always has a weird blindness to its own power. And I think that nobody seemed to consider like, are we creating a crisis? Where there isn't one, like, I think we can look back on the nineties now and say pretty firmly that like there wasn't a free speech crisis on college campuses. There just wasn't. And then it's weird because we have a culture where like, we have these prestige whose institutions that elevate people to this sort of cultural, public intellectual status, where they get to decide that something that's bothering them is a national problem. Even if it's just something that is bothering them.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, you could do it as with almost any institution. If you, if you guide enough scrutiny to something as large as higher education, you're going to find ridiculous anecdotes. And you're going to find people who are willing to cast themselves as victims.
Sarah: But if you were to talk about like Subway. If you were to talk about like a bunch of different Subway franchises, it'd be like, clearly Subway is over.
Mike: It's also funny to me. Like all of the arguments at the time were these slippery slope arguments. But looking back 30 years later, a lot of the stuff that they warned us about just didn't what did they warn us about just didn’t happen.
Sarah: What did they warn us about. What were their projections?
Mike A lot of it was language stuff. A lot of it, like, there was so much fucking panic about spelling womyn with a Y.
Sarah: It's like no one really ever did. That was always something that like maybe one person you knew did that.
Mike: Yes. It's not like somebody proposes something and it's just this rolling snowball that everybody's like, I guess I have to spell women with a Y now without thinking about it at all. Slippery slips don't work like that. And there's internal debate, and that's something that sort of popped his head above the parapet. And everybody in leftism was like, ah, I don't know if that really resonates with me.
Sarah: It's like firefighter versus herstory.
Mike: Yes, exactly. Some of these things stayed, bur some of them didn’t.
Sarah: You know what's funny too, is that like, I think this fear is maybe a way of recognizing the fact that change comes too slowly. Like people hang on to stuff they don't even like. We are not in danger of changing too fast. We're in danger of making too many compromises and changing too slow.
Mike: Yes. I think we overestimate the danger of social change and underestimate the danger of backlash to social change.
Mike: It's funny that we had this moral panic over political correctness in the 1990s. Then we had 9/11 and like large scale professors were fired. This was when we got the Dixie Chicks that were completely blacklisted for opposing the Iraq war. Like this was a period where it really was not safe to express anything other than support for the President, support for these wars. And then once that wave subsided, then we sort of brought political correctness back and just started bitching about like college sophomores again. When it's like, well, the danger is the right wing again and we're just skipping past what just happened.
Sarah: No, the danger is people expecting to not be sexually assaulted at school, actually. Actually. It's so funny that in our rogues gallery for years we had like Oberlin sophomores, and then for a while they got knocked out of the box by Osama Bin Laden. And then we caught Bin Laden, and we were like, now we can get back to college sophomores. We're like, ah, back where we belong.
Mike: But then the political correctness panic also got resurrected as cancel culture. Like so much of what we're living through now is just transferring the sort of radical, hysterical, leftist, archetype from college campuses onto social media. Again, conservatives have found one of the only tiny sectors of the country where they can claim that they are being discriminated against.
Sarah: And routines have the ability to make them feel bad about themselves.
Mike: Exactly. And so they have found places where they feel, or they cast themselves as powerless, and they can cast their detractors as powerful. And it's the same, you know, it's word for word the same stuff we heard in the nineties. And word for word the same disingenuousness. So that is what we're going to talk about next episode. So how was that, what did you learn?
Sarah: I learned that if anyone anywhere has an opinion that you don't like, you should complain about it for the rest of your life. Is that right? I don't want to do that.
Mike: And if you ever go to a swimming pool and there's a guy that was fins and a snorkel, don't go in.