Nevergreen is an academic satire that examines campus cancel culture and the ideological excesses that generate it. It has a subtle but deep Jewish angle in particular, as Jews are increasingly the target of campus cancel campaigns. This excerpt occurs as the cancel campaign against J., a middle-aged physician who has been invited to Nevergreen College to give a lecture, is just getting underway. No one actually showed up for his talk, but that doesn’t stop it from becoming the center of a firestorm of controversy, with potentially fatal consequences.
“Ah,” Robert exclaimed. “I thought I might find you here.”
“Did you have to jab me so hard?” J. rubbed his back.
“I did. You were pretty lost in thought there.”
“Ah! It was the strangest thing. That man. There was a—”
“Tell me while we walk,” Robert interrupted.
J. followed him through the corridors as Robert began walking. “What’s the matter? Did something happen?”
“Have you seen the student newspaper today, by any chance?”
“No,” J. worked to keep pace as they left the Depository onto the main campus. They came to a broad path (the one the female students had been dragging their mattresses along earlier) that ran between a pair of prominent signs. The sign on the right bore the words Walk of Fame; the one on the left, Walk of Shame. J. pointed as they crossed over the path. “What are those about?”
“This path connects the two largest lodges in the Hex.” Robert indicated the oblong buildings at the opposite ends of the path. “One and six, if you’re taking notes. The students here are like bunnies on bennies. Get shook up with a hook up, they like to say. Before they abolished sports the jocks used to say bump, hump, and pump. Oh, and dump. I think it’s something in the pomo. It perks them right up.”
J. felt slightly repelled. “And the signs?”
“The walk you do the next morning. Fame or shame, depending on your perspective. They installed extra security cameras in the guidestones there too, for good measure. See something, say something, you know. Ah, excuse me, please.” Robert maneuvered them past and through several tourists clustered around a red smelly pile of droppings, snapping photos. “Bonanza! They got to see some pig shit.”
Have I missed another ferry? J. wondered, momentarily overcome by the stench. He would text Brenda again as soon as he could. “So,” he said, out of breath attempting to keep pace, “what is the story with that Freinz fellow I just met? The librarian?”
“A real character. Allegedly descends from a long line of librarians. More likely from a long line of inmates at the asylum.”
“He seemed to think I was in danger.”
Robert stopped walking for a moment. “He’s a good librarian. And he seems to always know what’s going on around campus. But he’s a little—he’s a character. You’ll probably be fine.”
“Probably fine? What does that mean?”
“Come, we’ll discuss it at Aaliyah’s office. We’re almost there. Hexant 4, if you’re taking notes. Just around the Maze here.” Robert quickened his step as J. struggled to do the same.
“Who,” he breathed, “is Aaliyah?”
“The Vice President. If we still used that title. Now we just call her ‘friend Aaliyah.’ Here we are. The Center for Community Priorities.” Robert gestured upwards as they arrived at the base of the tallest Pacman building. “Administrative building, also known as the Castle, the Hive, and of course—” he gestured upward again, “the Big Dick. Bottom three floors home to the President and Vice President, the Provost, the Vice Provost, the Deputy Vice Provosts. The Deans of Student Life, Student Affairs, Student Concerns, Student Wishes, Student Fancies, the Vice Deans, the Dean of Deans. If we still used any of those titles.”
“And all the upper floors?” J. asked. The building had had additional floors added some years back, J. would eventually learn when he read the rest of the Information Desk literature stuffed in his jacket pocket.
“Department of Community Values. See?” Carved in bold block letters in the stone arch over the main doors were some of the community’s most fundamental values: Benevolence, Charity, Lovingkindness. “Quick, let’s catch that elevator.”
They went through the doors, caught the open elevator waiting for them.
“But why,” J. asked as they waited for the elevator doors to close, “am I going to see your—” He stopped, unable to think of what to call the administrator.
“Patience, grasshopper,” Robert said.
“And what about the student newspaper?” J. remembered after a long moment of silence as he began pressing the elevator’s “close door” button.
“That button doesn’t do anything, grasshopper,” Robert ignored him, putting his hand on J.’s. “Just there to give you the illusion of individual liberty.”
“This is the slowest elevator I have ever experienced,” J. observed moments later as they finally made their slow ascent.
“To remind you of your lack of liberty. Ah, we’re here.”
They walked out into a waiting area. A young woman wearing a bright yellow sari and sporting flesh tunnel earrings big enough to squeeze a thumb through lazily looked up, indicated they could take a seat on the low plush sofa along the wall, then returned to expertly manipulating her phone despite her multicolored fingernails being at least an inch and a half long.
“How does she do that?” J. whispered to Robert.
“No idea. But I think it’s a ‘he.’ I had him in my topology class last year. Brilliant kid, despite the fashion philosophy.”
“Robert,” J. said again, “why am I here?”
“It’s nothing, grasshopper.”
“Stop calling me that! And what’s nothing?”
“It’s probably nothing. Just precautionary.”
“What are you, the librarian now? Speaking in opaque parables?”
Robert straightened his bowtie. “Look, there was this thing in the student newspaper. It’s not a big deal but Aal asked me to bring you in, just to be safe. Here, I’ll show you.”
But as Robert pulled out his phone, the person in the sari called out in a sleepy deep voice, “Friend Aaliyah will see you now.”
They were led into a roomy office distinguished by the many colorful cushions scattered on the enormous colorful Persian rug and the absence of any conventional furniture. The scent of incense filled the space. A woman in a billowy multicolored gown seated on a cushion put her hands together on her chest, palm to palm, bowed gently in greeting, and said, “As-salāmu ʿalaykum. Please, my dears, sit where you like.”
“Thank you,” J. took a cushion.
“Welcome to New Ghana, J.,” Robert took another. “Friend J., meet friend Aaliyah, your new long-lost pal.”
“Please,” the Vice President said warmly to J., “You can call me Aal. And I’ll kindly ask you, friend Robert, to stop referring to this office as ‘New Ghana.’”
“Free speech! Viewpoint diversity!” Robert protested. “Budget cuts across the college, but the admin comrades import their office furniture from across the globe. You know how Persian rugs are supposed to have a flaw, because only the alleged Comrade in the Sky is flawless? I have it on good authority that this rug’s flaw is that it is actually flawless. Comrade knows what they paid for it.”
“Friend Robert enjoys his tenure,” Aal said cheerfully, then turned to indicate a lanky student with a goatee seated in the corner of the room, laptop atop lap. “And please meet Shawn. He’s my student shadow this week, from Undergraduate Social Support Resources. Now, may I offer you something to drink, my dear?”
“Would there be—just straight coffee?” J. asked hopefully.
Aal chortled. “Good one, friend! I can offer you pomo, of course. Or have you had the opportunity to try poco?”
“And what is poco?” J. asked hopefully again.
“I believe it’s a blend of pomo and cola. It’s officially served only above,” she pointed upward, “but we sometimes can squirrel some away for ourselves. On occasion faculty are permitted a drop as well. When they behave.” Friend Aal winked at Robert as she said this.
“They got rid of coffee on campus a couple years ago,” Robert explained. “The Student Capitalists revolted against the Fair Trade policy the student government had adopted against Big Coffee, in fact they occupied these very offices specifically demanding Unfair Trade coffee. The eventual compromise was to boycott all coffee from campus. As for the poco,” he added, “some people love it but all I can say is it’s nasty. Drink down a bottle and you’re ready to kill. I’m not sure if that’s a plus or a minus. But there is one thing the grown-ups all agree on.”
“And that is?” J. asked.
“We keep it out of the hands of students. Am I right, Shawn? Does Bossy Boss Bacharo let his shadowlings at the poco?”
They looked at the shadow, whose only reaction was to begin typing on his laptop.
“Perhaps, then,” J. turned back to the group, “we can just—get started?”
“Of course, of course,” Aal said. “So let me just begin by saying immediately that I see nothing to discipline you for, my dear.”
“That’s a relief,” J. responded with relief, until he realized from her glance at Shawn that there was something which she could, conceivably, consider disciplining him for.
“Aal,” Robert said, “he hasn’t seen the Howler yet.”
“Ah, I see. Well, then, shall we rectify that?”
The Vice President pulled over her laptop, hit a few keys, then swiveled it around so that J. could see the homepage of the newspaper. There was a large headline consisting merely of the word “THIS,” followed by a colon and a web address.
“Oh, apologies,” Aal said and clicked on the link, which took them to another site on which was posted an opinion piece addressed to “The Community of Nevergreen College.” It began:
We are enraged, and numb. There are dangerous forces there, right there in your home, in your heart, on your sacred ground. If you do not stamp out the hate within, then you become that hate. You must resist that hate.
You must hate that hate.
And you must hate it now.
The byline was someone or something called The Resistance.
“That’s odd,” J. said, noticing the two angry face emojis at the bottom and thinking that enraged and numb seemed mutually exclusive. “What is the Resistance? And what does this article have to do with me?”
“Do you—” the administrator began, then scrolled down some paragraphs to the bottom of the article, “Did you have some interaction with this young woman? Some altercation, perhaps?”
On the screen was a photo of the young woman with severe eyes at the Student Clubs Expo that morning.
“Altercation? What? No. I—met her. But why are you calling me in about this article? What does this have to do with me?”
Aal glanced over at Shawn. “Well, it isn’t so much the article, I’m afraid. It’s the complaint that was filed above a short while ago. The violation.”
“Of the Virtue Code, my dear. An Offensiveness Complaint.”
“But again. What does that have to do with me.”
“I am sorry for being unclear. The complaint has been filed against you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Virtue Code spells out a procedure for individuals—” Robert began.
“No,” J. interrupted. “I mean, what did I do?”
“I am afraid,” Aal answered, “I cannot give you that information.”
“I don’t understand. I’m charged with something and you can’t even tell me what?”
“It’s confidential. To protect the plaintiffs, my dear.”
“Plaintiffs? Was there—more than one?”
“I’m sorry, I cannot give you that information.”
“I don’t understand—Aal. Was it something I said?”
“Possibly. Not necessarily.”
J. couldn’t think. Who had he spoken to on campus? The students in front of the library? That woman at the Clubs Expo, who apparently wrote the opinion piece or maybe just represented The Resistance? She had glared at him but what had he said to her? Nothing, nothing at all. He was distressed at the thought that he may have offended somebody; but even more distressed at the thought that—he hadn’t.
His talk last night?
There had been no one there to hear it.
“What,” he asked tentatively, “are the possible consequences of an Offensiveness Complaint?”
Aal sighed. “I don’t actually know, my dear. The Virtue Code addresses complaints between students and against professors by students. Apparently we lack rules governing complaints from outside organizations against visitors. I understand that Bob has already petitioned the good people on the Virtue Committee above to work on rectifying that.”
“Comrade in Chief,” Robert said. “The President.”
“If we still used that title,” Aal glanced at Shawn.
“You said outside organization,” J. said, his mind racing.
Aal grimaced, glanced at Shawn. “Ah, I wasn’t supposed to reveal that. An honest mistake, I assure you. I trust we can keep that amongst ourselves?” At least she hadn’t revealed, she thought, that they weren’t entirely certain the organization was an outside one.
“So what happens next?” J. asked, unconcerned with Aal’s concern.
“Well, I hope you will stay on campus until this works itself out.”
“Do I have a choice? I’ve been unable, so far, to figure out how to get off campus.” He still hadn’t heard back from Brenda and had no information about the ferry schedule. Maybe he should just head down to the dock and wait—
“Of course you have a choice, my dear. You are a free agent. You may freely accept our firm insistence that you remain on campus. We just hope you are as committed to virtue as we are here and will choose to remain among us until the wheels of virtue have had a chance to turn.”
So what, leaving would mean he was somehow opposed to virtue? Maybe he should call his wife. No. The thing was absurd. You can handle this on your own, she would say.“Fine,” J. lifted his hands, in surrender.
“Wonderful, thank you,” Aal said with a warm toothy smile that revealed (J. thought) a perhaps early case of periodontitis. “As there is a process that is automatically triggered whenever an OC is filed. The first step is that the offended party may present its perspective, its preferences, its wishes directly to the offending party, if they choose. And in this case, the plaintiffs have demanded you meet with their representatives. Have a conversation. I am delighted to inform you that they have selected some of our finest students to represent them in this capacity. A real testament to the quality and integrity of our community.”
“They just get to demand this? Don’t the grown-ups around here,” J. said, unable to think of a better word, “have some say in the process?” He noticed that Shawn began typing furiously when he said this.
“We are all equal here, my dear. Everybody belongs to everybody. If that is what they want, then we want it as well.”
“And that would resolve the complaint?”
“Possibly. Not necessarily. But it’s a start, my dear.”
“I really don’t understand, Aal.”
“The ways of virtue,” the administrator said, flashing the V signal for virtue, “can be mysterious. But surely there is no harm in a little conversation with their representatives, is there, my dear?”
“Yes,” Robert chimed in, “good things always come from a little ‘conversation’ with the Politburo.”
“Or perhaps,” Aal rebuked him, “we can all learn a little something from our students, friend Robert?”
“She’s referring,” Robert turned to J., “to my opposition, a few years back, to the proposal that students assume teaching responsibilities for some of the classes here. Nonsense dressed up as sense, I said, and pushed the radical line that, generally speaking, professors are better prepared to serve as professors while the students are better prepared to serve as, you know. Students. I lost. Isn’t that right, Shawn?”
J. saw that the shadow’s fingers were flying over his laptop keys.
“Come now, my dear,” Aal said to J. “It’s almost twelve. I believe the students are waiting for you upstairs.”
Excerpted with permission of the author.
Andrew Pessin is a philosophy professor, campus bureau editor at the Algemeiner, and author of three novels. You may order Nevergreen here.