New Scrutiny for a Ph.D.

Stony Brook may be reviewing scholarship behind dissertation approved in philosophy for figure active in white nationalist circles. Some worry about academic freedom implications of such a review.

December 16, 2016
 
Jason Reza Jorjani

Academic departments love to highlight graduates who become intellectual stars, but it’s less clear what to do -- if anything -- about past students who become black sheep. The philosophy department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook is apparently reviewing the scholarship of a recent Ph.D. who’s emerged as a figure within the white nationalist movement, and he’s not happy about it.

“I am appalled by this irresponsibility and lack of integrity on the part of my former professors, and I demand an apology,” Jason Reza Jorjani, now a lecturer in humanities at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and editor-in-chief of Arktos Media, an organization aligned with the so-called alt-right, wrote in an open letter to the department. “That ought to be the kind of public statement made and should the department decide to denounce or disavow me despite this warning, I can imagine a libel suit against [SUNY] that would become a crusade for the cause of academic freedom that, perhaps after a number of appeals, ends in a spectacular victory at the U.S. Supreme Court under the [Donald] Trump administration.”

One spark for Jorjani’s missive was a short post on Leiter Reports, a popular philosophy blog, called “Ph.D. in Philosophy From SUNY Stony Brook Is Also a Neo-Nazi.” The blog’s editor, Brian Leiter, Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, noted that Jorjani spoke at a recent meeting of the National Policy Institute led by white nationalist Richard Spencer. The meeting included a “Hail Trump” moment, and the organization describes itself as committed to defending "the heritage, identity and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world."

Leiter provided the abstract of Jorjani’s dissertation, the basis of his recent book, which exalts the “spectrality of nature,” or “these so-called ‘paranormal’ phenomena” that are “perfectly normal in animals and even simpler organisms still guided by instinct.”

The blog post includes a note from a reader assessing the abstract as follows: “This nature worship, technophobia, worshipful reversion to Greek myths … this is the common coin of brown shirts [Nazis] when they're doing their best to be obscure, intellectual and highbrow.”

The other catalyst to Jorjani’s letter was a series of department meeting minutes he said he received several days later, as a former student who remained on the Listserv. The notes describe an unidentified speaker expressing concern over a Ph.D. alumnus, according to a screenshot Jorjani shared.

“One of our Ph.D. alumni is involved in the Aryan white supremacist movement,” read the minutes. “Is easily accessible on the internet. I have watched a couple of his videos and they are appropriately described as Aryan white supremacist, couched in Western philosophical tradition. This has come to my attention and many people are concerned. We are going to review his research, his dissertation, and we may or may not issue a statement, though this runs the risk of giving the issue more oxygen.”

Though Jorjani is not named, he presumes he is the Ph.D. in question, based in part on a current student’s reply that does name him specifically, and mentions his attendance at Spencer’s recent meeting.

Jorjani in his open letter said the reference amounted to a “slanderous attack on my character.”

"I have never understood what ‘Neo’ is supposed to mean in the context of ‘Neo-Nazi,’” he added, “other than an evocation of Hollywood depictions of ‘skinhead’ militiamen. A National Socialist is a National Socialist. Martin Heidegger, the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, was a National Socialist. I am not one, even if I have argued, rightly (in my October Stockholm speech), that National Socialist Germany was the only political regime to seriously consider the implications of mainstream scientific recognition and widespread cultivation of those latent human capacities hitherto marginalized as ‘paranormal.’ To put my relationship to National Socialism in the language of the left, since most of my accusers fancy themselves of that political persuasion, to call me a National Socialist is like calling someone a Stalinist simply because he is a Marxist. A Trotskyite would certainly be defamed by such an epithet, and would be rightly outraged to be subjected to that kind of slander. I am not any kind of nationalist.”

Jorjani said no comprehensive study of his writing or public comments would support a Nazi or supremacist title, and that getting a pat on the back from Spencer didn't mean he was a white nationalist. But a sampling of his recent public comments suggest, at least, a highly Indo-Eurocentric worldview and an antipathy toward Islam. He is Iranian-American.

At the National Policy Institute meeting, for example, Jorjani said the “rise of the alt-right was the decisive factor” in the recent presidential election, and introduced Arktos as the “most significant press in the alt-right.” Going forward, he said, Arktos would continue to operate under principles including “the idea that European cultures are intimately related to those of greater Iran or the Persianate world, Hindu India and the Buddhist East, and that taken together, these Indo-European, or Aryan, cultures are uniquely worthy of affirmation, since they are the roots of almost every great discovery and world historical development in spirituality, the sciences and the arts.”

He also described the “political ideologies of liberalism, democracy and universal human rights” as “ill conceived” and “bankrupt.”

Regarding Islam, he said that “Nearly everything allegedly glorious about Islam was parasitically appropriated by Arabs and Turks for the Caucasian civilizations of greater Iran. Moreover, this parasitic appropriation of a mutilated Iranian civilization took place in the wake of a murderous campaign of rape, plunder and destruction that can only be described as history’s first and greatest white genocide.”

In another interview with Red Ice, a “pro-European” news outlet, Jorjani said that “social justice warriors” don’t want people to know that the Persian poet Rumi was white because it would mean that “benevolent Indo-European or benevolent colonialism” is possible and because it challenges the notion that “white people can never be colonized. Iran was a great white empire that was colonized by brown and yellow peoples.”

‘They Own Him’

Mary Rawlinson, chair of philosophy at Stony Brook, did not respond to a request for comment as to what kind of review of scholarship the department might conduct. A university spokesperson said Stony Brook had no comment, as Jorjani was no longer a student. He earned his Ph.D. in 2013.

Leiter stood by his comments in another post to his blog, and said via email that the neo-Nazi terminology dispute is “just the narcissism of small differences.” Despite that, he said the department has no basis for reviewing a Ph.D. it already awarded. “They own him.”

John K. Wilson, an independent scholar of academic freedom and co-editor of the American Association of University Professors’ “Academe” blog, agreed about a review. “I have no idea whether Jorjani is a neo-Nazi, but it is completely irrelevant to his academic credentials,” he said. “Departments should only re-examine a recent Ph.D.’s dissertation work if there is some plausible allegation of research misconduct, and apparently no such allegation exists.”

The claim that someone holds offensive ideas “is no reason to re-examine their dissertation, and such attempts to punish controversial speech have a chilling effect on academic freedom,” he added.

Landon Frim, a recent Stony Brook philosophy Ph.D. and current assistant professor at St. Joseph's College in New York who described his views as “diametrically opposed” to Jorjani’s, declined comment on whether or not the department should review his peer’s work. But he said that philosophers -- including those who were once Jorjani’s teachers -- ought not to be “squeamish” about holding “highly problematic” ideas up to scrutiny, or fearful that to do so risks the appearance of censorship.

“A rigorous analysis of Jason’s ideas should in no way be controversial,” he said. “It should have been done, and there’s nothing wrong with doing it again.”

Carol M. Swain, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University who wrote a prescient 2002 book about white nationalism, cautioned against a review.

“If Stony Brook’s faculty disavows Jorjani, it will be breaking from a longstanding tradition of universities not taking institutional responsibility for nonpraiseworthy behaviors attributed to its graduates,” she said. “It would be far better for Stony Brook to invite its Ph.D. back to campus for debates with interested parties.”

Swain, who has become something of a controversial figure on her own campus due to her political views, said that as a black woman, she’s long warned against policies that will make white nationalism more attractive to those who feel left out of identity politics. She said Jorjani didn’t appear to be a neo-Nazi, since he’s never espoused violence, and she cautioned that members of the media and other groups are too flippant in equating white nationalism with that movement.

Rather than impugn Jorjani, scholars should study him, Swain added, to see where his beliefs originate. She said white nationalism holds a particular appeal to younger, white intellectuals because it relies on a certain logic. That means Jorjani isn’t the first and won’t be the last person working in academe to share such views -- or other racialized worldviews.

“The academy is full of racists,” she said.

Read more by

Back to Top