There is a temptation to take this lightly. But it’s actually heartbreaking that our academic and cultural institutions are doing this to young people. I’m going to get over the initial ground as lightly as I can, and reserve the more serious appeal for the end.
When I was in college, those many years ago, this article published on 1 February in the Kenyon Collegian would have been satire.
In fact, it would have been considered something of an over-the-top satire. Nothing like this could actually happen. An article recounting these events would have been fiction, extrapolating, for effect, the worst-case outcome of a radical ideology, over-zealously applied.
College students didn’t actually think this way. Maybe some did, but they were in a small minority. College professors, for the most part, would have been likely to either ignore such an obvious attempt at satire, or – if it related to something in their discipline and a particular course or forum – guide a short classroom discussion of it. Maybe get the loudmouth College Republican and the speed-talking Young Democrat to launch one of their epic 15-minute rallies, and watch the ball whizz back and forth.
But at the end of the discussion, everyone would have walked away understanding that the reason America is so great is that this doesn’t happen here.
In 2018, however, it apparently does.
The event in question is the cancellation of a play scheduled to premier this spring at Kenyon College. The play was written by Kenyon drama professor Wendy MacLeod, who is also the James Michael playwright-in-residence at the school (a small liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio).
Entitled The Good Samaritan, the play is meant to represent satirically the reactions of white college students to their encounter with a teenage Guatemalan farm worker, an underage youngster who has been smuggled into the United States to be put to work on a nearby egg farm. In the play, built around a true story about such smuggled farm workers, 15-year-old “Hector” has turned up sleeping in the back seat of one student’s car.
Now, MacLeod’s play itself sounds like a study in anti-white stereotypes. Her version of satire involves depicting white students as clueless and insensitive. Most adults today are familiar with the storytelling pattern, from movies and TV for the last 40 years: satirizing white people in order to convey solidarity with “not-white” people.
But in the baccalaureate Bolshevik culture, you can’t do that anymore, because satirizing white people requires having them say things that are, well, clueless and insensitive. Indeed, it’s clueless and insensitive to let your white-people characters speak much at all.
Fortunately, there is now a Soviet-Youth mechanism for rectifying these enormities of overly individualist “art” against the proper consciousness of race, class, gender, and other dimensions of identity experience.
In today’s atmosphere of collegiate Bolshevism, an artist submits her work to the collective, and takes a hiding if the collective doesn’t like it.
The Kenyon Collegian explains:
Students and faculty, particularly members of the College’s Latinx community, came out strongly against the play after the script’s release via email on Jan. 6. Sebastián Chávez Erazo ’18, the co-president of Latinx student association Adelante, said many feel the sole Latino character Hector is a “racist, harmful representation of a Guatemalan youth.”
MacLeod initially offered a little reedy back-talk:
“I know some struggled with the script’s satiric elements,” MacLeod wrote. “But Freud aptly wrote that humor is about ‘bringing the repressed into light.’”
That lame Freud-washing didn’t go over. Laugh at stupid white people? The Kenyon student body didn’t come here to laugh at stupid white people. Featuring white people at all, and making students watch them misinterpret and lay their trip on a teenage boy of color, is just…offensive.
The students huddled their ranks with the zeal of worker-collective leaders planning a People’s intervention on Friday night. Quoting Freud certainly isn’t a ticket for a rogue playwright to perpetrate a politically incorrect script. Not when there’s this to outrage the conscience:
[Hector, the teenage farm worker] does not speak English and the students who speak Spanish continually misinterpret and misspeak when they try to communicate with him. He has slightly over 130 lines in the 139-page play, and the majority of them are under 10 words. “Guatemala,” he says, patting his chest; “huevos,” meaning eggs; “gracias,” meaning thank you. Professor of Spanish Clara Román-Odio said she has identified 40 instances of ethnic insensitivity in the play. For example, the characters continually claim Hector is from Argentina though he says he is from Guatemala. They also repeatedly refer to him as “illegal.”
Useless to point out that the instances of ethnic sensitivity were intentional. They were an artistic device. MacLeod probably didn’t know she had deployed 40 of them, but clearly, she did know she put them in there for a reason.
That reason, however, is unauthorized. Devices are suspect – and rightly so, it seems; in this case, the Hector-character device is manifestly the tool of a callous racist patriarchy.
“The Good Samaritan supposedly addresses the ‘topical issue’ of Latin American immigration in the United States,” Camila Wise ’20, public relations manager of Adelante, said. “However, Hector does not feel like a main character. Instead, it is obvious that he is used as a plot device for the white characters’ comedy.”
No matter how many white people there are in the United States, and no matter what the nature of their interaction with Latin American immigration or how it affects them, immigration story lines are not allowed to feature white characters – not even if it’s to make them look like buffoons.
Students had been concerned from the get-go about the alarming, racist artistic license hovering over all this like a penumbra over the Fourteenth Amendment.
Students and faculty within the drama department said they were anxious about MacLeod’s play for several months. “The first problem I noticed with this play was last semester when the name was ‘Juan Deere,’” drama major Jono Bornstein ’18 said. (The title referred to tractor company John Deere Tractors.) “Everyone in the [drama] community was like, ‘That’s a racist pun,’ so we were all a little bit apprehensive about ‘what’s this play going to be about?’”
MacLeod ultimately changed the name. “The story is not about that character, so that was misleading,” Balinda Craig-Quijada, chair of the dance, drama and film department and professor of dance, said.
Well, lesson learned. Wendy MacLeod withdrew her play, cancelling its April premier and deciding not to show up for a forum at which she had originally planned to discuss the play with student critics.
But that’s not enough for the Latinx student association. The association’s Bolshevism could hardly be more accomplished if it were printing off flyers in a Petrograd basement on the eve of the Revolution.
Adelante responded to the announcement of the show’s cancellation in a public statement on Jan. 31. In an emailed statement to the campus, the group wrote: “It is inexcusable that you fail to offer an apology to the group directly affected by the representations in your play, those of us who, on top of constantly justifying and affirming our presence on this campus, have to now bear the emotional and psychological labor of expressing to the wider Kenyon community, within the confines of ‘civil discourse,’ why these misrepresentations are detrimental.”
Adelante met with the faculty on 30 January, and was told that “MacLeod’s play was protected under the College’s ‘freedom of expression’ clause.” It isn’t clear why it was necessary to affirm that (were the students calling for MacLeod to be punished in some way, or for the play to never even see publication?).
But the formulaic response could not assuage their anguish.
Alma, who asked that only her first name be used to protect her privacy, said the play’s cancellation cannot ameliorate the harm it caused. She came into the country without immigration documentation in 2006, at the age of 10. “My DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] expires in less than two years,” Alma said. “I cried hours and hours after reading MacLeod’s script because I could not explain to my peers why it had made me so mad.”
Regrettably, this event is not a one-off in MacLeod’s career. In 2014, she reportedly ran afoul of the student collective with a previous play, The Ballad of Bonnie Prince Chucky, in which one of the characters was a trans man. Students summarized their concerns:
“That play was pretty transphobic in how it dealt with the one transgender character,” Bornstein said. “It had a lot of similar problems [to The Good Samaritan] — it tossed around this transgender character without giving them agency, using them as a prop in the play instead of anything else.”
Emma Longstreth ’18 said it was the first mainstage show she saw at Kenyon. “I walked out with a weird feeling about it,” Longstreth said. “Over time, I realized it was because it felt as if the trans character’s entire identity was being trans. It felt like the character was there for a plot device.”
Of course, if you’ve lived longer than 21 or 22 years, you know that many of these same students get very upset if a trans character, or a character “of color,” is depicted in a fictional treatment without sufficient reference to being trans, or being “of color.” That too is insensitive. Failure to mention what another person experiences as informing all aspects of his/her/xyr/zyr existence is even a type of malicious aggression.
But such mentions, while compulsory, are only allowable in narrowly defined formats. The artist is damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t.
There is no such thing, for over-indoctrinated little Bolsheviks, as room in the shared intellectual space for other people to have something on their minds that isn’t exactly what the little Bolsheviks have on theirs.
The point is not to berate them. They’ve been brought up this way. They’ve been taught that their toddler-like understanding of human interaction, with its clinging to resentments, its elaborate tantrums, and its steadfast refusal to make the most elementary accommodations to other people, is a form of revolutionary virtue.
Adults surveying this might quail inwardly at the inevitable prospect of ugly confrontations down the road. But it doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize that the little Bolsheviks won’t “win” such confrontations. They’ve been set up to never win anything. All they know how to do is complain and demand apologies.
They’ve never been taught to cooperate, look past the quirks and faults of others, and build, create, and live. Indeed, everything that building looks like for humans, they’ve been taught to despise.
What we need to recognize is that this really is what our culture has become “about” today. We struggle to keep our spirits above water in a rising tide of ritual condemnation and virtuous resentment – all of it directed at the people around us – and then wonder why we can’t just get along and let each other be.
Until we acknowledge that there is no virtue in condemning bad things, but only virtue in living out good things, we won’t be able to teach that to young people. Condemning bad things is a tool, and one that isn’t useful or necessary nearly as often as we think. Living out good things is what makes us peaceful, fulfilled, and hopeful. When we’re living out good things, we can shrug off other people’s plays without losing a moment’s sleep, and build what gratifies us instead of tearing down what doesn’t.
It’s gotten pretty urgent for us to have this reckoning with our culture. I’m not sure what it will take. But if today’s college-age students are to have hope and a future, we have to find a way to model real virtue and character for them, rather than encourage them to keep ingesting this terrible placebo that is eating them alive.