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The Limits of Mocking Cancel Culture: A Review of Andrew Pessin’s “Nevergreen”
Andrew Pessin. Nevergreen. Open Books, 2021.   Andrew Pessin’s novel, Nevergreen, is a satirical portrayal of the cancel culture that has emerged in recent years on some American campuses. The title is a reference to Evergreen State College, now famous for the treatment Bret Weinstein received there when he questioned the wisdom of holding a… The post The Limits of Mocking Cancel Culture: A Review of Andrew Pessin’s “Nevergreen” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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Andrew Pessin. Nevergreen. Open Books, 2021.

 

Andrew Pessin’s novel, Nevergreen, is a satirical portrayal of the cancel culture that has emerged in recent years on some American campuses. The title is a reference to Evergreen State College, now famous for the treatment Bret Weinstein received there when he questioned the wisdom of holding a “day of absence,” a day on which white people would be asked to stay off campus for the day. Beyond the title reference, the story draws on a variety of recognizable episodes from recent history, weaving them into its fictional account of a doctor, J., who is invited to give a talk on campus and then finds himself being hunted by a mob that has accused him of “hate” (even though no one attended his lecture).
Pessin is a professor of philosophy, so he knows all too well the absurdity of much that is said and done on our campuses these days. He fairly lampoons students, faculty, and administrators throughout the novel. But one of the obstacles he faces is that so much of his subject matter is already beyond satire. While the novel is full of exaggeration, and the second half of the story is somewhat surreal, many of the characters and events in the novel seem fairly realistic at the same time. Just as the reader begins to think, “well, maybe this is a bit far-fetched,” a reference to a real event reminds him that absurdity and reality are not antonymic. At the same time, Pessin’s portrayal of the campus community is so unsympathetic as to become unengaging.
Pessin alludes to George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World throughout Nevergreen, but, unlike those novels, his does not offer a penetrating philosophical analysis of the tyrannical mind. Whereas O’Brien and Winston, and Mustapha Mond and John the Savage, confront one another, Nevergreen does not offer a philosophical dialogue between a representative of the regime and its victim. There is no mastermind who mounts an intellectual defense of Nevergreen, and it is not clear what J., the protagonist, is defending (although, in fairness to Pessin, the novel makes clear that J., who symbolically represents Jews, is guilty simply for existing). There is no great conflict between freedom and tyranny or comfort and truth. In the end, the campus community barely knows what it is doing (fair enough!), and J., who is not a particularly compelling character, is more hapless victim than hero. The novel could have been much stronger if Pessin had used to it undertake a more thorough dialogical exploration of the ideology and psychology of cancel culture, on the one hand, and the reasons to resist it, on the other.
That said, Pessin should be commended for taking on this topic. There are those who argue that cancel culture is not a real or very serious thing. Some of these same people say that it is a front for white supremacy and that those who get cancelled deserve it. Pessin himself apparently had a brush with potential cancellation over some comments he made about Gaza, so he knows it is real, and he has a sense of what it feels like, and that comes across in the novel. He includes many features of the cancellation playbook in his account of what happens to J., and he gives the reader a good sense of what it might feel like to be (almost) cancelled.
But, in the end, mocking cancel culture is not enough. We need to understand the phenomenon so that we can disarm it and find a better way of dealing with the grievances that lead to it (if possible). Nevergreen gives us a detailed, if exaggerated, portrait of cancel culture, but it might not help us to move past it.

The post The Limits of Mocking Cancel Culture: A Review of Andrew Pessin’s “Nevergreen” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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