Tobias Lanz has been an adjunct professor of political science for some twenty years at the University of South Carolina. In a class of 200 students cell phones go off, and Lanz eases the interruption by taking the topic at hand, e.g. Russian policy in Syria, by saying “that must be the Kremlin calling.” Last week the topic was the American welfare system, and when a phone went off, Lanz replied: “that must be the welfare office calling.”

But an African-American student, Angela Bogni, confronted Lanz after the class accusing him of racism by directing the comment to her. Lanz told her that he did not know where the phone was and was just joking as he always does when there is an interruption from a phone. Students in the class confirmed his account. One commented: “He didn’t direct that comment at you. We were talking about welfare and your phone went off and he made a comment (like he does every time someone’s phone goes off).” Ms Bogni recorded a video of her conversation with Lanz. He explained he did not direct the comment to her and did not know where the phone was. It was simply a throw away joke. In the video she seems to accept his account. But then tweeted that, “Today was my first experience with head‑on racism at this institution.”

Harris Pastides, president of the University, apologized to the student: “I’m sorry for what you experienced today and deeply troubled by comments that perpetuate racist stereotypes. This is not representative of UofSC. We stand with you.” It is not yet decided what punishment is in store for Lanz. But for what did the president apologize? Lanz had done nothing wrong. His comment did not “perpetuate racist stereotypes” except in the mind of the student.

The article on the affair in The State, March 30, 2018, was titled “USC Instructor Accused of Racist Comment also Defended Displaying Confederate Symbols.” The article discovered that Lanz had given a lecture at an Abbeville Institute Summer School in 2006 on “The Agrarianism of Wendell Berry.” Wendell Berry is a Southern poet, agrarian advocate, and critic of industrial capitalism who is admired around the world, mostly by progressive leaning environmentalists. This agrarian criticism of the dark side of industrial capitalism has from the time of Thomas Jefferson been a central theme of the Southern tradition. Indeed, Eugene Genovese (a Northerner and Marxist), described by the Atlantic Monthly as America’s greatest living historian, said that the South has developed the best critique of the dark side of liberalism. Lanz discussed Wendell Berry in relation to the Southern tradition. He had some kind words to say about the Confederacy and Robert E. Lee and the culture that produced him, and had no problem with displaying the Confederate flag as a symbol of that culture, positions that until recently were widely held by Americans North and South.

This along with the accusation of a racial slur was enough to present a presumptive picture of Lanz as a “racist,” a term that has no objective moral or empirical meaning but has become a slur used by people to bully and manipulate their opponents. And that is what is happening in this affair. Lanz has been vilified by the president’s misplaced apology, and The State apparently thinks it sufficient to suggest a person is a racist because he has given a lecture at the Abbeville Institute, an organization in higher education devoted to a critical study of what is valuable in the Southern tradition. It would seem that leftists should be lining up to praise Lanz for his steadfast critique of industrial capitalism, but such is not the case.

One should not be hard on the student. She is a product of an education that is obsessed to the point of hallucination with the topic of race and gender. The current academy is saturated with “white studies” programs designed to find examples of “white supremacy” everywhere—even if it doesn’t exist—and to gain victim status by doing so. President Pastides should know this is anti-intellectual, anti-academic, and the antithesis of a true “liberal arts” education and the free exchange of ideas.

Donald Livingston

Donald Livingston is the founder of the Abbeville Institute and retired Professor of Philosophy at Emory University. He has been a National Endowment Independent Studies fellow and a fellow for the Institute of Advanced Studies in the humanities at the University of Edinburgh. His books include Hume's Philosophy of Common Life and Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium, Hume's Pathology of Philosophy.

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