Cancel culture and “The Human Stain”

Coleman Silk was a dynamo college dean who put his school on the map. Now he’s teaching a classics seminar; two students enrolled therein have never attended. “Does anyone know them?” he asks. “Do they exist, or are they spooks?”

That’s the set-up for Philip Roth’s 2000 novel, The Human Stain.

Turns out the students were Black. A complaint is lodged. Silk insists “spooks” meant ghosts, not a racial slur. He digs in; nobody backs him; winds up resigning in a huff. Which only seems to corroborate the odor of racism.

Making a big deal out of so obviously innocent a word usage might seem outlandish. Yet cases like this have proliferated since Roth wrote; “cancel culture” prosecutors lacking all sense of their extremist aburdism.

The subject was explored in Skidmore Professor Robert Boyers’s 2019 book, The Tyranny of Virtue (which I’ve reviewed). Since its publication another Skidmore prof met with calls for his firing, after his silently observing a “Blue Lives Matter” demonstration. Now even silence can be construed as “hate speech.” 

Whose definition, of course, is any idea or opinion not rigidly conforming to the ideological catechism of today’s “woke” left-wing political correctness. Whose culture warriors are ever on the warpath for heretics to persecute.

More recently, Skidmore’s student government refused to allow Young American Libertarians to organize on campus. Saying YAL might make some students feel unsafe. Because YAL might engage in “hate speech.” Not that it has; it might. While in fact, what really makes everyone feel unsafe on campuses is this atmosphere of intolerant repression, with dire consequences for any perceived verbal misstep. 

The woke Thought Police seem oblivious to how this horrifies normal sane people. “Cancel culture” hands the right an issue they exploit. Meantime, there’s almost nothing else in today’s right-wing belief system that doesn’t flout reality. Take your pick between those ugly extremes.

Roth’s own view is clear. Near the end, Coleman’s teacher sister delivers a damning indictment of how the modern education establishment betrays the essence of what education should be. Opening minds, not closing them.

Back to Coleman himself, his grievance against the college intensifies when his wife dies, killed by the “spooks” controversy, he feels. One of his children, Mark — always estranged, with some deep attitudinal problem — says the whole mess could have been defused by Coleman simply apologizing for the word. Roth doesn’t dwell on this, but Mark is, oddly enough, dead right. However, Coleman could not have apologized because of who he was.

And who was he, really? That’s what the novel is mainly about.

Coleman was, you see (spoiler alert), Black. Passing for white for half a century. How central (or not) to Coleman’s inner reality was his great secret? The narrator (Roth’s alter ego) poses the question, but cannot answer it. 

A white girlfriend of two years didn’t know. When Coleman finally takes her to meet his family, she freaks out and is gone. He won’t make that mistake again, and tells his mother so. Resulting in his banishment from the family.

But it’s not a simple story. Roth, a consummate novelist, peels away layer after layer, and not just for Coleman, but other characters too, probing and probing what makes them tick.

One is Faunia, half Coleman’s age, become his lover. Seemingly the very picture of a beaten-down woman. Some assume Coleman is likewise ruthlessly exploiting her. But that’s not so. What is it, exactly, that they have together? Not simple either. Sex is key, and there are denials that it’s more than just sex, but saying “just sex” is wrong because their sex carries a heavy load of more fundamental human intimacy. How the author juxtaposes and balances these almost contradictory aspects of the relationship is a novelistic tour-de-force.

Indeed, he’s a master word-slinger, playing the language like Yefim Bronfman plays a piano. The book describes Bronfman himself doing just that at a rehearsal. Here is the passage, the power of Roth’s prose mirroring the very thing it describes:

“Enter Bronfman to play Prokofiev at such a pace and with such bravado as to knock my morbidity clear out of the ring. He is conspicuously massive through the upper torso, a force of nature camouflaged in a sweatshirt, somebody who has strolled into the Music Shed out of a circus where he is the strongman and who takes on the piano as a ridiculous challenge to the gargantuan strength he revels in. Yefim Bronfman looks less like the person who is going to play the piano than like the guy who should be moving it. I had never before seen anybody go at a piano like this sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew. When he’s finished, I thought, they’ll have to throw the thing out. He crushes it. He doesn’t let that piano conceal a thing. Whatever’s in there is going to come out, and come out with its hands in the air. And when it does, everything out there in the open, the last of the last pulsation, he himself gets up and goes, leaving behind him our redemption. With a jaunty wave, he is suddenly gone, and though he takes all his fire off with him like no less a force than Prometheus, our own lives seem inextinguishable. Nobody is dying, nobody — not if Bronfman has anything to say about it!”

Bronfman is not the only actual personage popping up in the novel. I was tickled to see there someone with whom I myself had a recent phone conversation. 

9 Responses to “Cancel culture and “The Human Stain””

  1. Robyn Blumner Says:

    Cancel culture is illiberalism at its worst. If the Dems don’t stand up to this perniciousness they will (rightly) lose their position as the party of truth and rationality.

    Robyn E. Blumner *President and CEO*, Center for Inquiry *Executive Director,* Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science 1012 14th St. NW, Suite 205 Washington, D.C. 20005

    The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Our vision is a world where people value evidence and critical thinking, where superstition and prejudice subside, and where science and compassion guide public policy.

    On Sat, Mar 20, 2021 at 10:47 AM The Rational Optimist wrote:

    > rationaloptimist posted: ” Coleman Silk was a dynamo college dean who put > his school on the map. Now he’s teaching a classics seminar; two students > enrolled therein have never attended. “Does anyone know them?” he asks. “Do > they exist, or are they spooks?” That’s the set-up f” >

  2. Don Bronkema Says:

    Ego, Freud said, is Heraclitean, fluid, ever seeking itself. Reality is relations–becoming, not being. Some still search for the self as a ding-an-sich im die geist von Hegel. We cobble ourselves by the hour, grimly pursuing the counsel, ‘gnoti sauton’.

  3. Lee Says:

    I read The Human Stain many years ago and enjoyed it quite a bit. Roth is an excellent writer.

  4. Lee Says:

    Do you have a complaint about cancel culture? The line is over here. Cases will be dealt with in order of priority.

    Have you had your entire career destroyed, been denied housing, been excommunicated from multiple organizations, and treated like a pedophile because you are gay? You are in the first section of the line.

    Have you had your entire career destroyed because you espoused a communist view? You are in the first section of the line.

    Are you harassed and treated like a non-citizen when you drive, vote, apply for a job, or travel across national borders simply because you speak Spanish? You are in the first section of the line.

    Do people frequently fear you as if you were a declared terrorist simply because you are Muslim? You are in the first section of the line.

    Does a traffic stop make you worry that it may be your last moments alive because you are Black? You are in the first section of the line.

    Is there a moment in the last year where your usual privilege didn’t apply and a marginalized group was able to inappropriately assert power over you? That is bad. It is something we want to do something about. It is important. The line is over here. Get in line. Unfortunately because this happens to you relatively infrequently compared to the others, there are many, many in front of you; but we will get to you as soon as we can.


    If you find yourself prioritizing those at the back of the line as if they were at the front, please ask yourself why.

  5. Don Bronkema Says:

    Lee: Bravo! Majority cohorts are never abused, but they scream trahison d’etat when their privileges are questioned. Anglos have no sense of the fear entertained by blacks on the road or dark streets or anywhere they ‘don’t belong’. Years of life-expectancy are lost to angst alone.

  6. Lee Says:

    Because of a disaster of a tidal wave, much of the armada in the harbor was listing to the right; many ships were taking on water. Much of the citizenry rushed into action, restoring ships as best they could. Headway was being made, but there was still much to do by these folks who were determined to make more progress. Let’s call them “progress-ives.”

    On the shoreline was a smaller group of critics. They noticed that some of the ships being restored were not perfectly upright; in fact a handful were now leaning the other way, to the left. Even though there were still a hundred-fold more ships taking on water on the right, the critics worked to shift the focus to those few ships that were leaning to the left. Because they weren’t actually helping out, they had a lot of time to serve their con. Let’s call them “con-serve-atives.”*

    So, the stage is set, and the armada hangs in the balance. Will the big con succeed in making the smaller problem seem bigger than the larger problem, resulting in the sinking of many ships? Or will those who wish to make progress against the disaster win out, saving the vast majority of the ships while risking the possibility that a few will end up tilting left?

    If the progress-ives lose to the con-serve-atives because of the “cancel culture” meme, it is because they have failed to expose the con of the con-serve-atives. Progress-ives need to emphasize the much larger problem that they are solving. They should also explain how they are addressing the smaller problem, but must take care to not enable the con-serve-atives efforts to distract the citizenry from the larger problem.

    *I apologize to the actual conservatives. The “con-serve-atives” are those who are currently dominating the Republican Party, who claim to be conservatives but fail to be so in so many ways.

  7. Don Bronkema Says:

    sui generis analog!

  8. rationaloptimist Says:

    Lee: Two wrongs don’t make a right.

  9. Don Bronkema Says:

    Be more explicit…

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