Thou Shalt not Cancel: A Review of Nevergreen
Andrew Pessin, professor of philosophy and religion at Connecticut University, is no stranger to cancel culture. In 2015, he was criticized by a student for a pro-Israel Facebook post that could have been interpreted as racist. Though Pessin deleted the post the day the student emailed him complaining, weeks later the Connecticut University student paper published letters to the editor attacking Pessin, and students started a petition demanding the school condemn his rhetoric. There is no doubt that this incident, and other similar ones from recent years from across the country, were on Pessin’s mind as he wrote his most recent work, “Nevergreen.”
“Nevergreen” revolves around a man named Jefferey (though he curiously only goes by “J.”), who is invited to give a guest lecture at a small liberal arts college called Nevergreen. Though no one shows up to his talk, he is pegged by students as violating the Virtue Code, who then file an “Offensiveness Complaint” with the “Dean of Community Values.” Nevergreen, after all, “values values.” And its students, “hate hate.” Though a smaller group of students choose to “Resist the Resistance,” J. spends the rest of the novel escaping this opposition, a range of other student groups and inclement weather.
Pessin describes the book as “a portrait of today’s liberal arts college scene, cancel culture, and more.” J. is never told why the students found his talk (which, you may recall, no one showed up to) to be so full of hateful rhetoric. The chaos that ensues –– and it really is chaos –– is all based on these unfounded claims. J. publishes a generic apology (as there are no specifics on which to comment), which is immediately rejected by the “Resistance” of offended students. The Resistance leads the charge against J., and it is quite literally a charge, as they chase after him chanting “kill the beast” and “cut his throat.”
Pessin’s argument is clear: contemporary cancel culture has gone too far. Anyone can be attacked for anything, and when people –– especially college students –– don’t get what they want, they riot. But perhaps Pessin’s fictional comparison is incomplete. J. is never given any explanation as to what he said or did that was so problematic. Contemporary liberals are giving reasons for why the people they allegedly “cancel” are problematic. Sure, you can argue with the reasoning in any given case, but reasons definitely exist. In “Nevergreen,” there’s just no reason. Also, contemporary political disputes, especially around social issues, can unfortunately lead to civil disobedience. There have been many examples of this in recent months. But a satanic ritual at the cryptic Moondial in the center of the campus? Surely, that’s a little overboard. Now, I understand that Pessin is exaggerating to make a point, and that point is well made. But he does lose some credibility when he goes so far.
But Pessin’s argument is hardly one-sided. In addition to criticizing the left, he is sure to criticize the reactionary far right. Take, for example, the scene where J. wanders around the student club expo, which is one of the most enjoyable moments in the book. There are the classic clubs and organizations: student government, music, etc. But also the Carnivores club to combat the PETA club, the Settler-Colonial Club to combat the Indigenous Peoples Club and the Cultural Appropriation Club to combat the Marginalized Peoples club. And of course, the Ur-Nazi club, which rejects the mission of Neo-Nazis in favor of “the original real deal.” The club that “resists the Resistance” even dresses up in Civil War Confederate uniforms.
Jewish readers will notice a few subtle Jewish references: 613 pomegranate seeds in a recipe, a professor whose last name is Netzach. But Pessin himself explains that the entire book should be read as about the Jews. Specifically, its lack of Jews highlights the cancellation of Jews, which Pessin sees as especially common, especially when it comes to supporting Israel.
“Nevergreen,” published by Open Books this summer, is pleasantly readable. The writing is dialogic and humorous, but also grounded and thought-provoking; serious readers will alternate between giggles and gasps. Pessin hardly comes across as an “old man yells at cloud” figure, but instead presents a passionate argument against cancel culture that is fleshed out and nuanced. Perhaps he takes his parables a bit too far, but it certainly keeps the reader interested as the story gets wilder and wilder.
Photo Caption: “Nevergreen”
Photo Credit: Open Books