Cornpone opinions in academia

I was commenting recently on the attempt by University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) Chancellor Phyllis Wise to explain to all of us addleheaded profs that her ability (and that of US employers more generally) to fire people for expressing their opinions really has nothing at all to do with freedom of speech or academic freedom:

People are mixing up this individual personnel issue with the whole question of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Political scientist Corey Robin has taken up the same quote, and explained how pervasive it is, and how fundamental it is to the machinery of repression in the US. It seems like one of those dogmas that is patently absurd to the uninitiated, but for those inside the machine (and by “the machine”, I mean simply mainstream American thinking about politics) it is self-evident.

Robin has nothing on Mark Twain, who wrote more than a century ago:

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.

He explained at greater length in his great essay “Corn-pone Opinions”, telling of a young slave whom he knew in his boyhood, who told him

“You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.”

I can never forget it. It was deeply impressed upon me. By my mother. Not upon my memory, but elsewhere. She had slipped in upon me while I was absorbed and not watching. The black philosopher’s idea was that a man is not independent, and cannot afford views which might interfere with his bread and butter. If he would prosper, he must train with the majority; in matters of large moment, like politics and religion, he must think and feel with the bulk of his neighbors, or suffer damage in his social standing and in his business prosperities. He must restrict himself to corn-pone opinions — at least on the surface. He must get his opinions from other people; he must reason out none for himself; he must have no first-hand views.


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