When I was a professor of American studies at Berklee College of Music, I taught courses on social problems. My students and I discussed environmental catastrophe, police violence, the American empire and other issues that keep me up at night. But the discussions rarely entered the terrain of substantive disagreement. While my students argued about the extent to which such problems existed and what should be done about them, few ever put forward a conservative opinion. The general consensus was that we lived in the America lambasted by Howard Zinn, and that we all had a civic and moral responsibility to improve it.
In contrast, when I taught at Kansas State University, my classrooms were filled with heated discourse. It was not Zinn’s America that was excoriated, but the welfare state and campus “snowflakes.” That isn’t surprising. Most of my students were poor, white and from rural communities in Kansas. Those who grew up out of state were often veterans from nearby Fort Riley. Over three years, I listened to my Young Republican students argue that we should not have transgender bathrooms. I heard them contend that black culture was to blame for black poverty. I even had a student write a final paper that argued racism no longer exists -- not because of Obama’s election, but because he was a white dude who was picked last in a pickup basketball game. True story.
While I challenged the perspectives of these students, I never once filed an equity report with the university. Nor did I appeal to Title IX when I heard something that snapped my feminist reflexes. Unlike many professors today, I hold the view that my students -- and people in general -- have the right to be wrong. I also think that the standard for what constitutes a transgression continues to drop like a limbo bar.
More important, I believe that with rational arguments rooted in evidence, I can push more closed-minded people to self-reflect on why they have certain views. Maybe that will encourage them to change their minds. If not, that’s fine too. The ideological purges of the Cold War have passed. I have no interest in producing a present-day liberal version.
Yet, from the public censure of left-wing poet Anders Carlson-Wee, you would think that the zombified corpses of Joseph McCarthy and his legion of followers have returned to roam Twitter in pantsuits and safety pins. The poet’s case is pretty straightforward. He wrote a poem told from the perspective of a homeless person. It was meant to highlight the intersectional plights of this marginalized demographic and how the homeless have to prostitute their afflictions to get attention from people on the street. The tidal wave of outrage that drowned Carlson-Wee rested on his use of African American Vernacular English and the word "crippled."
Soon after the poem’s publication at The Nation, flocks of liberals took to Twitter to vent about what they consider Carlson-Wee’s use of “blackface” and able-bodied language. Roxane Gay offered her condemnation and tweeted “Know your lane,” while Hieu Minh Nguyen and Natalie Wee described the poet’s work as “offensive” and “truly gross.” After poets of stature had kindled the blaze, a deluge of nobodies hurled their opinions into the trash-bin fire. Articulations as insightful as “this [poem] is extremely, extremely fucked-up” and “You knew it wasn’t OK” filled the comment threads.
Within days, Carlson-Wee issued a public apology in which he reprimanded himself for the “pain [he] has caused” and said that -- with the help of his Twitter critics -- he will begin the process of “re-evaluating what it means to make art in this world from a place of privilege.”
While his self-flagellation is typical, it was surprising to see his apology chastised for perpetuating further “violence.” Literally, the first comment was from a tweeter who assumed the moral high ground over the poet. From the handle Disabled & Deaf Uprising -- a “collective of disabled & D/deaf writers & artists” -- Carlson-Wee was admonished because he used the apparently able-bodied term “eye-opening” to describe what he learned from this experience. Other people jumped in and told him that the apology further cemented his ignorance and that he should permanently retire from poetry.
More bizarrely, Carlson-Wee’s editors joined the pile-on by lambasting the poem that they selected for publication. Typically, when a piece receives criticism at The Nation, the editors publish a page of dissenting letters. This would have been the place for Gay, Nguyen, Wee and others to express their concerns. Instead, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith diverged from established practices and published a poltroonish statement above Carlson-Wee’s work. In the statement, they too confess to the “pain” and “harm” they have caused the “multiple communities” affected by this poem. If an apologetic letter twice the length of the work in question wasn’t enough, the pair proclaim that they are “grateful” for the rebuke they have received. When I first read their statement aloud, it sounded as if I was seated in a Catholic confession booth.
As Katha Pollitt -- another poet and columnist at The Nation -- observes, the editors’ craven apology reads like something “issued from a re-education camp.” More significantly, it forestalls any conversation about the issues raised by Carlson-Wee’s work. Can an able-bodied, white person assume a black and disabled perspective in their literary work? Should we ban certain words from art if they do not jive with some individuals?
Unlike the editors, I use the word "individuals" and not "communities" because black, formerly homeless and disabled people have spoken in defense of the poem, including this veteran who identifies as “crippled” in his Twitter bio. Indeed, the different opinions that have emerged from these marginalized communities highlights the fact that these are questions that warrant a dialogue. However, such issues can’t be discussed in 140-character takedowns and an editorial stamp of disapproval.
Above these concerns, the censure of Carlson-Wee highlights how risky it is to write on issues of identity for a liberal audience. He is a decorated left-wing poet and National Endowment for the Arts Fellow. If he can’t avoid unknowingly stepping on an identitarian land mine that blows his career to bits, what hope do the rest of us have?
Indeed, the mob-like rage directed toward Carlson-Wee and the cowardly response by his editors sends a chilling message to any progressive who might want to write on topics that engage race, homelessness and other identity issues. For those of us who lack the vanguard wokeness of Roxane Gay and others -- and who still believe in discourse over punishment -- we can only hope that our work is not read by the wrong liberals.