Sunday, April 16, 2017

Steven Volynets on Political Correctness

My former Brooklyn College student, Steve Volynets, wrote this email protesting the increasing political correctness in American culture.  He sent it to Prof. Jonathan Haidt, the founder of Heterodox Academy and an exceptional social psychologist and philosopher.  Steve recounts  9/11, when he was my student. On 9/11 I had breakfast with my former professor, Eric Flamholtz from the UCLA business school.  My later meeting in a diner with Steve and Endrhis, then my students, completed the cycle.

Dear Dr. Haidt,

I am writing to thank you for speaking out against the growing suppression of viewpoint diversity on college campuses and elsewhere in academic and intellectual discourse.

I am not a professor, or even a student. I am a fiction writer. Last year, I wrote an article for New York Observer in which I took issue with Roxane Gay’s review of Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, “Purity,” questioning the merit and wisdom of conflating the novelist with his fictive characters. My piece went viral and prompted what you have described as Twitter "flash mobs" against me, some initiated by other established authors and contributors to the New York Times (screenshots attached).

For reasons I cannot fathom, Jonathan Franzen has been described as a misogynist and personally made the target of attacks both on social and legacy media. No one can seem to provide an objective explanation as to the nature of or reason for these attacks, yet they persist. Since my Observer article appeared, I have seen others express similar disdain for Mr. Franzen. Last year, I learned that he and Jeff Bezos were scheduled to appear on Jeopardy from a Facebook post by a writer and creative writing professor, who referred to them both “the most insufferable guys.”

I was born in Soviet Ukraine and grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where, as kids, we used to describe to this manner of speaking as “talking shit.” Not a beacon of decorousness perhaps, my old neighborhood (at least not until the arrival of the Food Co-op), still I have been taught that making assumptions about people I have never met or gotten to know personally was wrong. So I decided to challenge this writing professor by simply asking her if she ever met Mr. Franzen, to which she responded by calling me a “Franzen apologist” and blocking me from her list of friends.

No one should have to apologize for writing a work of fiction, I thought, recalling the painful experience of Salman Rushdie as well as those of dissident authors from the Soviet Block. More than that, I imagined a creative writing student, one inspired by Jonathan Franzen’s novels, having to take this professor’s class. Could this student freely express her passion for Franzen’s prose, to quote it in her papers and in-class discussions, to ask questions about it and expect dignified answers, to engage with it critically without risking punitive grading or, worse yet, being dismissed as an apologist? That I do not know the answer to this question troubles me.       

I have always believed that when it comes to art, one cannot be disabused of one’s emotional or intellectual cathexis any more than one can be forced to fall in or out of love. To regard fictional characters, images and narratives as inherently doctrinal, or as reflections of an author’s personality, strikes me as absurd as conferring a moral judgment upon a movie actor based on a role she plays. Yet this, along with sharp stands against "cultural appropriation," is the guiding principle for writers and critics like Roxane Gay, who not only express this view in op-eds for the New York Times – which is perfectly acceptable and, indeed, should be encouraged – but also sit on editorial boards of literary journals, judge writing contests and fellowship application. Needless to say, I do not risk applying for those contests and fellowships after making my disagreements public (and as a working artist, I could use the support).

I was also heartened by your mention of Mitchell Langbert’s study during your presentation at Duke. It is fair to say that Professor Langbert is quite to the right of me politically. He is also one of the most important teachers I've ever had. So it was sickening to learn that he has been treated so dismissively and with such contempt by his own colleagues. It was in his class that I was introduced to a book that had transformed my understanding of urban life, Robert Caro’s ‘The Power Broker,’ a text that I return to again and again. Nor could I have written my J Journal story about Bernie Madoff, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, if not for Prof. Langbert, whose lectures on financial markets had fueled my leaps of fancy into Wall Street myths. Koch brothers or not, I don’t recall Prof. Langbert, a dedicated pedagogue and scholar, ever peddling cheap right-wing propaganda in his classrooms. But I do remember the afternoon of September 11, 2001, sitting at a table with him and my college buddy, Endrhis Santana, in a diner just outside the Brooklyn College campus. The air still smelled of smoke and we spoke freely (something one could do in those pre-social media days) of our shock and anger. After years of teaching, Prof. Langbert must have seen thousands of students just like us – immigrant kids with side jobs, trying to make it through a city school. After we were done, the hardline laissez-faire hawk that he is, Prof. Langbert paid for our food.

I never thought I'd see anything like this, not at CUNY– the mounting suppression of free speech and intellectual diversity on college campuses is a disgrace.  

I am not a professor. In fact, I never even finished graduate school, having dropped out of the MFA creative writing program for some of the aforementioned reasons. I cannot become a member of the Heterodox Academy. Still I join, if only in spirit, your worthwhile cause.

Steven Volynets

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