Last week, University of Chicago geoscience professor Dorian Abbot took a courageous stand against wokeness after he was disinvited from delivering a prestigious public lecture at MIT for the heinous transgression of calling for academic decisions to be based on academic merit without consideration of race.
Abbot spoke out against the cancel culture that had victimized him. He actively engaged with supportive media, including this column, to share his message and challenge his critics.
In less than a week, he became a nationally known civil rights activist. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) named him a Hero of Intellectual Freedom.
Princeton University stepped in to host his canceled lecture, which will now be broadcast to an undoubtedly much larger audience, while MIT, reeling in a spiral of shame-induced damage control, invited him to speak in another capacity.
Against all odds, Abbot is seeking out liberal journalists who may – despite enormous personal and professional risk – break ranks with the mainstream media’s near-total blackout of any positive coverage of people like him.
Abbot is a shining paladin winning the battle against wokeness, but we do have a powerful reminder that cancel culture can still succeed.
Last month Bright Sheng, an acclaimed Chinese-born composer who was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in music, and who won a MacArthur “genius” fellowship before such honors were wasted on the likes of Ibram X. Kendi, got into hot water for daring to show his University of Michigan composition class Laurence Olivier’s 1965 film performance of Shakespeare’s "Othello" in – shudder – blackface and without “proper contextualization.”
Sheng’s pedagogical purpose was to study approaches to the composer Giuseppe Verdi’s opera "Otello," a close adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, almost all available video versions of which – including the one I used in my own university course on Verdi’s operas not so long ago – also feature the Moor of Venice in blackface.
Sheng got the drop on the brewing scandal and did exactly the wrong thing. He apologized. Abjectly.
“It was insensitive of me, and I am very sorry,” he told The Michigan Daily, adding that he had thought only artistic excellence should matter in evaluating great works of art.
He also wrote in a formal letter of apology documenting that he had worked with and professionally assisted many minority artists and did not consider himself a racist.
His apology was widely rejected. Smelling blood, 23 Michigan students and nine music department colleagues angrily denounced it. “Professor Sheng responded to these events by crafting an inflammatory ‘apology’ letter,” they wrote, “in which he chose to defend himself by listing all of the BIPOC individuals who he has helped or befriended throughout his career.”
Helping minorities, and later having the temerity to talk about, is apparently a big no-no in Wokeland.
Sheng’s department issued a more generic but still damning condemnation. He department chairman stated that his “actions do not align with our school’s commitment to anti-racist action” and its adherence to the woke holy trinity of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Evan Chambers, a far less distinguished Michigan music professor who is described on the internet as a “fiddler,” quickly denounced his MacArthur-laureate colleague’s “racist act,” which he says “we need to acknowledge as a community.”
Sheng has voluntarily stepped down from teaching his class while the university’s Title IX office investigates him for “discriminatory harassment” and higher-ups consider whether he should be terminated from his teaching post.
Some students expressed satisfaction that Sheng will not be in physical proximity to University of Michigan undergraduates, who are now protected from his purported “threat” to their “safety,” which consists of nothing more than showing a 56-year old film adaptation of a Shakespeare play to legal adults at a major taxpayer-funded public university and then apologizing for it.
In a tremendous irony, Sheng grew up in China during its Cultural Revolution, which ruthlessly persecuted people accused of violating new cultural norms, including the study of Western art. His family’s piano was confiscated, and he was sent to live in a remote province, where he studied and performed traditional Chinese folk music for many years until he was finally allowed to study Western composition when Shanghai’s conservatory reopened in 1978.
Now he is in the throes of another cultural revolution, one that he may have believed he could weather with the civility that used to characterize American public life, or with the patience that might have helped him endure China’s all-too-similar upheaval.
As we have seen over and over again, both approaches have failed in our country. Shepard Barbash, a writer whose parents commissioned Sheng to compose a double concerto for cello and piano that was performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax, told me, “Too bad he didn’t realize that while recantation and self-abasement sometimes work to appease the powers that be in China, they never work at U.S. universities.”
U.S. universities today know neither tolerance nor forgiveness.
Sheng’s teaching career is unlikely to survive.
Even if he is cleared by his university’s disciplinary processes – and the overwhelming majority of those accused and investigated are not, he would still either have to return to a hostile department that ritually declared it wants him gone or seek employment at another institution brave enough to hire an accused racist.
I urge him to take on a much more vital educational mission: to speak out, to describe what happened to him in China and what is happening to him now.
As Dorian Abbot’s case shows, the 64% of Americans who believe that cancel culture is a serious threat to their liberty are ready to listen. Some of them are even willing to act.
Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University. Read more — Here.
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