Volume > Issue > How Cowardice, the Herd Mind & Twitter Mobs Threaten Academia

How Cowardice, the Herd Mind & Twitter Mobs Threaten Academia


By Jason M. Morgan & J. Mark Ramseyer | May 2024
Jason M. Morgan, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, teaches history, philosophy, and international relations at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan. J. Mark Ramseyer is Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. Their book, The Comfort Women Hoax: A Fake Memoir, North Korean Spies, and Hit Squads in the Academic Swamp (Encounter Books), was published in January.

Tweed jackets, overdue library books, and chalk dust. This is the image of academia in the popular mind. The reality, though, is that cutthroat careerists stalk the halls of American universities. Scholarship is not the business of the professoriate. Rather, getting promotions and prestigious prizes and staying one step ahead of the woke mob are what drive the life of the mind today. Or maybe the life of the mindless is a more apt description.

J. Mark Ramseyer and Jason M. Morgan have been battling the lemming-like woke conformists in the Asian Studies wing of American academia for years. In this taidan, or stage-conversation, Ramseyer and Morgan relate some recent scenes from the long struggle session that university work has become.

J. Mark Ramseyer: This is my first taidan in English, but I’ve read and done my fair share in the taidan’s native country.

Jason M. Morgan: And your native country, too! Well, almost. You were born in the United States but traveled to Japan as an infant and stayed there until returning for college, correct?

Ramseyer: That’s right. My parents were Mennonite missionaries. I grew up mainly in Miyazaki, in southern Japan, and then earned my undergraduate degree at Goshen College, a Mennonite-affiliated school in Indiana.

Morgan: I know where you went to college because one of the people who has been waging a Twitter war against you these past three-plus years made fun of you for going there. She’s an American academic and boasts of her and her colleagues’ big-name degrees: Ivy League, Northwestern, UCLA. Your alma mater — and mine, too, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga — is a point of ridicule to academic Twitter mobs.

Ramseyer: Ah, yes, you’re talking about the cancel campaign that you and I have been fighting since early 2021. It all started with an eight-page paper I wrote. Eight pages, and then three years of attacks.

Morgan: I read your paper on the contracts into which so-called comfort women — which is to say, prostitutes — entered when they went to work at military brothels in Asia during World War II. It was classic J. Mark Ramseyer: brilliantly argued, impeccably framed, theoretically watertight, and meticulously researched.

There was only one problem. In writing the paper — a mere eight pages, for Pete’s sake! — you upended three decades of fake news masquerading as “rigorous scholarship.” A lot of it was based on the tales of Yoshida Seiji, a Japanese communist and ex-con who wrote a seedy pulp-fiction “memoir” in 1983 in which he purported to have carried out comfort-women raids on Jeju Island, off the Korean peninsula, hunting for sex slaves for the Japanese Army during the war. It was the cheesiest hoax since Teilhard de Chardin’s Piltdown Man, and even easier to debunk.

Ramseyer: Historians in Japan and South Korea had a field day tearing gaping holes in the completely fake account. Eventually, even the Asahi Shimbun — the equivalent of The New York Times in Japan and the paper that helped spread the hoax in the first place — retracted all its articles based on Yoshida’s made-up memoir.

Morgan: But somehow the American historians never got the memo. They apparently missed all the work done by historians in Japan, historians in Korea, and the Asahi newspaper. To this day, the Americans recycle the sex-slaves-rounded-up-on-Jeju-Island nonsense. You gently pointed out that it was all bunkum, and for your trouble you got death threats and news crews stalking you at your house.

Ramseyer: Then there were the petitions. Three thousand people, some of them Nobel laureates, signed one petition. Thirty thousand signed another. Thousands and thousands of people signed petitions trying to get me fired from Harvard, and my paper retracted. Professors — tenured professors at first-tier universities — called me a “racist,” a “white supremacist,” and a “fraud.” One of my colleagues at Harvard implied he had examined the materials I used in my paper and declared I didn’t have evidence of the comfort women’s contracts. Apparently, he forgot that the Harvard library was closed for COVID-19 at the time and didn’t realize I had checked out all the materials to my office anyway. But never mind. To the thousands of people in the mob, I was a misogynist, a fascist, and who knows what else. In the surely-you-must-be-joking category, American academics tried to tie me to a mass shooting in Buffalo, to the murder of Korean spa workers in Atlanta, and to violence against women in Afghanistan.

One Connecticut historian seemed to prance around on any South Korean TV news show she could find, relentlessly insisting I was a fraud. The editors of the flagship American Political Science Review — none of whom, to my knowledge, know anything about Japanese or Korean history — unanimously declared my paper a fraud and demanded its retraction. Another journal dropped me from its editorial board. Even my church in Cambridge indicated it didn’t want me around anymore!

I’m not making this up.

A historian in Australia wrote that Harvard should prosecute me for academic fraud. One thousand professors signed a self-declared “feminist” petition urging people to file Title IX claims against me for sex-based discrimination or sexual assault (they didn’t specify).

Every day was more baffling than the day before. I wish I could say it was funny. I wish I could say I maintained a sense of humor through it all. But I didn’t. It was hard, really hard.

Morgan: Those were dark times for you, and for academic freedom in general. The personal attacks against you have let up a bit, thank goodness, but the attacks on academic freedom seem to get worse by the day. There appear to be a lot of people out there who agree. An email you wrote to fellow faculty during the Claudine Gay episode — when the former Harvard president equivocated before the U.S. Congress on anti-Semitic speech on campus and was subsequently discovered to be a plagiarist — was tweeted out by a colleague of yours. I think it got more than a million views.

Ramseyer: Four and a half million. My email, which was about how we on the Harvard faculty were asleep on the watch and were responsible for the takeover of the university by the intolerant fringe, must have captured what a lot of us inside the universities feel, and what a lot of people outside the universities have long suspected. The endless cancelings; the university punishments; the massive Diversity, Equity and Inclusion complexes; the diversity-statement loyalty oaths — all this happened on our watch.

We faculty saw it coming, but we let it happen. We were too busy with our own work. We were too worried about what our colleagues and administrators would do to us if we spoke up. So we sat by and did nothing as those colleagues and administrators set to work dismantling our academic freedom — the freedom that, frankly, lies at the heart of our collective enterprise.

Morgan: I have thought a lot about your canceling. I watched it unfold in real time. You and I have seen it happen to other people, too. The insane attacks on you, the attacks on other scholars who go against the grain and challenge academic consensuses — this isn’t just un-American, it’s unacceptable behavior for human beings. It used to be that academic radicals urged us to “question authority.” Now the slogan in American academia seems to be, “You Don’t Have the Authority to Ask Questions.” How times have changed!

Ramseyer: The nonconformists of the 1960s completed their Ph.D. programs and joined the faculty. They took control and — at least in the humanities — they trained lemmings. And now those lemmings have come to fill the chaired professorships and call the shots, and a contemporary nonconformist doesn’t stand a chance. So students who want to think for themselves avoid the humanities. The smart ones might take economics or political science. More likely, though, they go into STEM fields. The ones left over — the ones without intellectual courage — are practically the only ones who sign up for history and literature anymore. I exaggerate, I know. I’m sure I’m insulting some very serious and capable students in those fields. They’re not all lemmings, of course. But the fact that these fields are circling the drain is no longer a secret.

Morgan: A generation of lemmings with plenty of ambition but little intellectual honesty or even curiosity is now in charge of humanities departments at many American universities. I know it’s true because when I dared to question the comfort-women hoax, the lemmings herded and came lemming-charging after me, too. In 2015, while I was a doctoral student studying abroad at Waseda University in Tokyo, I publicly criticized a McGraw-Hill world-history textbook that claimed the comfort women had been gifts from the emperor and were rounded up and killed at the end of the war. There is simply no historical evidence for those claims, not one piece of paper in any archive anywhere attesting to what the textbook authors wrote.

My dissertation advisor at my home institution, the University of Wisconsin, was not happy with my questioning authority. She accused me of being an agent of the prime minister of Japan! And then she canceled any public mention of a book I later translated about the history of the comfort women. My advisor made a complete fool of herself, and so did a lot of other believers of the comfort-women hoax.

It was both silly and sad to watch so-called intellectuals behave like a gaggle of mindless followers, falling all over themselves trying to out-woke the other lemmings in the stampede.

I don’t know what drives people to believe what is historically not true. In the case of the comfort women, is it blind feminism that makes people parrot falsehoods? Contempt for Japan? Some need to have the comfort women be the perfect victims in a morality play? A kind of Victorian refusal to accept that prostitution is an unfortunate fact of human societies everywhere? Whatever the reason, thousands of people let their emotions and their careerism override their intellectual faculties. So much for “critical thinking.”

When the time comes to save one’s own skin, the lemmings close ranks and attack anyone who wants to use his cerebrum instead of his amygdala.

Lemmings on a witch hunt is what academia amounts to now. Nobody expects the clannish inquisition! But they should. In an academy hijacked by DEI and groupthink, clannish inquisitions are what scholars face when they think for themselves.

Ramseyer: A clannish inquisition is exactly what I went through, but frankly, it felt more like being targeted by “mean girls” in junior high school. The ones who came after me were disproportionately female — and freakishly adolescent. Seventh-grade boys can be mean, too, but boys and girls are differently mean. The ones who came after me embodied perfectly the mean girls of seventh grade.

All this was so far removed from what the life of the mind ought to be that Harvard suddenly didn’t feel like a university at all. A university education — as historian Hanna Gray of the University of Chicago put it — should be about learning to think. That will be challenging to a student. It will be disquieting. It might be troubling. It might even be infuriating. And that’s as it should be.

In the course of learning to think, students should be reading broadly across the modern intellectual spectrum. They also should be reading a massive range of classics. They should read Joyce and Faulkner and Hemingway, but they should read Milton and Shakespeare and Aeschylus, too. And they should be arguing with each other and questioning what they read. They should read Marx, but not as a guide to understanding the economy. And they should read Franz Fanon, but not (as one Harvard student apparently put it) in four separate classes. They should also read George Stigler, Charles Murray, and Thomas Sowell. Their professors should facilitate this variety, despite its being — for many students — a profoundly unsettling experience.

Students are not dumb. They want this type of education. If existing departments don’t offer it, they’ll avoid those departments. When that happens, universities need to shut down those departments.

Morgan: When you think about it, the Twitter mobs that now steer much of the academic machinery are a kind of replacement for the proper functions of a university, or better yet, a board of governors. Either responsible, non-insane people will make decisions about curricula, or the people who came after you — one of whom delighted in being tagged on Twitter as an “academic assassin” — will make those decisions instead.

At any rate, I agree that university departments that have suffered intellectual deaths must be put out of their misery. Students will naturally go where they can get an education, not an induction into the neuroses of Twitter-happy professors to the tune of 50 grand a year in tuition.

It makes me wonder whether a university education is still worth it. When I was 17, I had no plans to continue with school. I wanted to work on cars. My big life plan was to fix engines during the day and read Homer and Dostoevsky at night. And maybe write a Kerouacian novel or two and some anthologies of poems à la Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg. The way I figured it, I knew how to read and didn’t need to sit in a classroom anymore. “Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone!” was basically my educational philosophy when I was 17 and still omniscient.

Ramseyer: At 17, I was working on engines, too. But I was looking forward to four years of going to coffee houses at midnight, smoking cigarettes, and arguing about Kropotkin and Sartre.

Morgan: You were waaaay ahead of me in your reading, but I was already, I confess, an unfiltered Lucky Strikes man when I first set foot in the groves of academe.

Now that I am nearly three times older than I was when last I knew everything, I see a little better how much a young person needs guidance. My question about the worth of a university education should probably be expanded to include the kinds of life lessons that good professors can provide. The young need someone to teach them how to read and understand a book, and also how to live, to act as one should. I did learn some of that in college. I had some good professors at UT-Chattanooga, in the previous century when I was an undergrad. Now, however — now that the lemmings are running the institutions — I feel sorry for young people. Who will guide them in life when their professors are busy rage-posting on Twitter and trying to get people fired who actually do read books and think for themselves?

Ramseyer: Perhaps things are not so bleak as all that. And I’m glad I didn’t take up cigarettes.

Morgan: There are definitely glimmers of hope in higher ed. Recently, I learned of Owen Anderson, a philosophy and religion professor at Arizona State University. He is suing ASU over mandatory DEI training on the grounds that it’s racist and violates his conscience. Good for him! And what a boon for his students as well. Prof. Anderson is modeling how to live one’s ethics in real time. If his students remember nothing else from his classes, I hope they remember that they can always do the right thing, no matter what.

There are glimmers of hope on the other side of the world, too. I can certainly see in my day job in Japan that education is very good when done right. My students come from all sorts of backgrounds, and, to be honest, I think it is as true today as it ever was that it simply isn’t necessary to sit through four or more years of classroom education past high school in order to pursue a lot of careers. At the same time, college can be a haven for young people, a place where they can leave behind the conformist straitjacket of social media and have — maybe for the first time — sustained and probing conversations in the physical presence of other real human beings. And they can learn from their professors how to stand firm on moral principles.

Ramseyer: That sounds exactly right. I couldn’t agree more.

Morgan: Thank you for this taidan, Mark, and thank you for fighting for academic freedom. Which is another way of saying, thank you for fighting for human dignity. We are meant to use our minds, not lose them running with — or from — academic lynch mobs. The past three-plus years have been a real trial for you. But, because you refused to surrender, the future looks brighter for everyone else who wants to live free, like human beings created in the image and likeness of God.


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