Evergreen State College was occupied on May 23, 2017. Students took over the library and administration offices of the institution in Washington State and demanded substantive changes that would ensure Black students equality and protection against oppression.
“Hey-hey, ho-ho, these racist teachers have got to go,” students chanted at the college’s administrators who were besieged in the faculty room. A request by the institution’s president, George Bridges, to go to the restroom was rejected. “We have been here before you were ever thought of,” a Black female student hurled at him. “We built these cities, we’ve had civilization way before you ever have, coming out of your caves.” Bridges listened and nodded in assent.
Throughout, Bridges, who is white, tried to appease the demonstrators. He listened to their complaints, agreed with them and apologized time and again even when they shouted at him and cursed and ridiculed him. Footage from the event shows him trying to explain his position while the students reprimand him for making “threatening” hand gestures. The campus police, whose task is to preserve order and ensure the wellbeing of students and faculty, were locked into their station, to protect themselves; they let Bridges in when he wanted to speak to them.
Within a few days the event morphed into a battlefield far larger than Evergreen’s modest dimensions. Hundreds of masked anarchists and Antifa activists patrolled the college’s environs to protect Black demonstrators, while at the same time members of the extreme right-wing organization Patriot Prayer displayed a presence in order “to defend freedom of speech.” Washington State troopers, armed and armored from helmet to boot, tried to keep the clashing factions apart. And all of this happened because some faculty members of the college were asked not to turn up for work for one day because of the color of their skin – but one of them insisted on showing up anyway. That person is Bret Weinstein.
‘Is this an ambush?’
Bret Weinstein is an evolutionary biologist who taught at Evergreen for 14 years. He and his wife, Heather Heying, who is also an evolutionary biologist, were among the college’s most popular teachers. This quiet campus, near the state capital of Olympia, was established in 1967 and based on the liberal and civil-rights values of the 1960s.
“It’s a pretty small college, everyone on the faculty knows everyone else,” Weinstein, 52, told me last week via Zoom from his home in Portland. “And there was always a kind of generosity of spirit. Even with people we didn’t agree with, it was still possible to talk and to be pleasant to each other.”
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“That began to break down. It became impossible to have a conversation because quite suddenly there were these sacred assumptions; for example, that there was tremendous racism at the college that made it difficult for Black students to thrive. But it simply wasn’t true. Almost everyone at the college was progressive and believed in equality. I’m sure that there was ignorance about race, the same ignorance that exists everywhere, but nobody was rooting for one race to win over another. And yet that was the story.”
Since the 1970s Evergreen had held an annual “Day of Absence,” on which ethnic minority students and faculty absented themselves from campus in order to spotlight their contribution to the college. The idea was based on a 1965 work by the American playwright Douglas Turner Ward about a town in the South from which all the Black residents disappear one day, and suddenly their importance to the community is felt.
Weinstein relates that during his time there, the Day of Absence was not a significant event on campus: “I suspect it was a difference between the sciences and other parts of the college. During the years that my wife and I taught there, we never had a student that we were aware of who didn’t come to our classes on the Day of Absence.”
In 2017, in an effort to step up the battle against racism, the college’s administration announced a substantive change to the Day of Absence. Instead of Blacks staying away from the campus, white students and faculty were asked not to show up on that day. Weinstein thought that was scandalous.
“For the first time, in my experience,” he says, “the administration was very aggressive in trying to get people to sign up for this. White people should not come to campus was the clear message.”
Was there a prohibition on coming to campus?
“Let me be clear. We were not to come to campus. We were allowed to come, but we were strongly encouraged not to. And not only that, the event for the first time that I was aware of, captured buildings. In other words, the administration canceled the classes that were to be held in buildings so that this white-free Day of Absence could use them.”
The problem is that when you point out the absurdity of accusing a Jew of being a white supremacist, it only makes things worse. For some reason, this is a forbidden argument.Bret Weinstein
Did you consider respecting that day and not coming to work?
“No. During a normal Day of Absence I would have been on campus and it wouldn’t have affected my teaching. And in this case, I found the structure of it offensive. The idea of telling people they shouldn’t come to campus because of their race is very different than deciding not to come to campus. And so I was offended by this as a liberal. It did not fit the values that I grew up with, which I believe are correct. So, it really wasn’t a choice. I felt I had to say something. In part because I thought, as a very popular professor and somebody with a very long history of being a strong advocate for racial equality, that I could afford to speak the truth. I thought I could endure the response I knew would come back. I was wrong about that.”
Weinstein sent a protest email to the official in charge of the college’s multicultural programs, writing that, “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles... and a group encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness, which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.” He added that he would be happy to initiate a colloquium on the subject of race through the eyes of science and evolution, in which everyone would be invited to participate “irrespective of ethnicity, belief structure, native language, political leanings, or position at the college.” The suggestion was not accepted.
The Day of Absence passed with no major incidents. However, three weeks later, demonstrations against racism erupted on campus, in part because Weinstein’s email was made public.
The events unfolded against the backdrop of the instability of the first months of the Donald Trump presidency. America was swept up in an accelerating tailspin of tribalism: Blacks and leftists were apprehensive about being deprived of their civil rights – and from the other side the far right fought back, borne on the wings of Trumpism. While Weinstein was teaching a class a student called him over and said, “Bret, do you know that there are people outside the building chanting your name?” Weinstein went outside and encountered about 50 students who were calling him a racist and demanding that the college fire him.
“Would you like to talk about it?” he asked them, on what he calls “the day my life changed so radically.” He proposed that they should go up to the fourth floor with him, because he had students working in small groups on the first three floors. “They said: ‘If that’s where your students are, that’s where we’re going.’ And they streamed into the building.”
Were you angry?
“I didn’t feel angry. I felt frustrated because it was my job to help confused college students see the world more clearly, and in some sense, this was a group of 50 confused college students. I should say, these are students I’d never met before. Not one of them.”
How did your students react?
“My students stood by me. The other students accused me of terrible things, and I tried to reason with them. I had a little bit of success, but it wasn’t durable. There were two women in the crowd, one Black and one white, and they were challenging me and I was responding to them. And I could tell that they were not hearing what they expected to hear, that I was not what they had been led to believe I was. And I saw that recognition of a sort dawned on them. It frustrated them that things didn’t add up. Why were my students, including my students of color, standing by me? Why was I saying reasonable things and standing firm? But at some point the discussion was brought to an immediate halt by the protesters and they went back to chanting from a piece of paper that they had been handed. So there was no opportunity to make progress because the conclusion was already set. It was on the paper.”
Did you feel that they had come with their minds made up?
“Somebody had told them the conclusion. And I now know [that] some of them had been threatened. They were told that if they did not participate in this, they would be ostracized from the social justice groups that they were in. But yes, I felt like I was robbed of all of the normal tools that I would ordinarily have to reason with somebody and get them to see something that they couldn’t see before.”
At one point Weinstein learned that a discussion about his future at the college was underway in the cafeteria. He thought he should be there. “I expressed my intent to go and my students said, ‘We’re very worried about it,’ that it seemed like a very bad idea. A number of them, including several students of color, elected to go with me so that I would not be alone. One of them spoke on my behalf at the meeting and she was shouted down. When approaching the meeting, it became clear the space was controlled by anarchists, mostly white students. They lined the hallway on the way in, so there was no way to get in or out without going past them. When I arrived, they spotted me.
“They sent out an alert that I was present. They assigned somebody to follow me and watch my every move as if I was going to do something dangerous. I went into the room. There were strange announcements about how there was food and water, but it was only for people of color, that the chairs were only for people of color unless there were enough of them, in which case white people should sit in the back. All very unusual.”
Weinstein thought the situation was liable to deteriorate into violence. Some students told him they had overheard people talking about whether to allow him to leave the room at the end of the meeting. The meeting itself became very heated a number of times. The rage was intense, he says.
Did you have an opportunity to speak?
“They wanted me to come to the podium and speak. I think they wanted to taunt me. I think they believed I’d be afraid to face them. When I showed that I was eager to respond, they shut the podium down and wouldn’t let me speak.”
During the day, Weinstein spoke with the campus police chief. She told him that the college president had instructed her not to intervene and that she could not guarantee his safety. The next day he moved his class to a public park off campus. While bicycling to the class, he relates, he saw students waiting for him, some of whom he recognized from the demonstrations against him. As he passed them, he saw that they immediately took out their phones, apparently to relay the message that he had arrived. “And I thought, what is this? Is this some kind of ambush? And so I rode around to a different entrance to campus and went to the police station. The police were locked inside. They unlocked the door and let me in. And I said to the chief of police: ‘I must be imagining things, but I think that there were people waiting for me.’ She said, ‘I don’t think you were imagining anything. In fact, you’re not safe on your bike. Not only here on campus, but anywhere in town. If they were to catch up to you, I don’t think we could help you.’ So she said, ‘You need to go home. You need to get your car to meet your students.’ As I rode back to my house, I was thinking: This can’t be happening in the United States. I’m a civilian who’s incapable of getting protection from the police from a mob of people who have mistaken me for a racist. This is inconceivable. I got home, and I don’t remember it this way, but my wife says I was as shaken as she’d ever seen me.”
Asked what they have against science, Weinstein notes that the “woke” movement wants to dismantle all the tools capable of proving that there is no logic to it. Science is the ultimate tool for that, so they portray it as a moral failing.
Did it ever cross your mind that as a Jewish person you were actually being accused of white supremacy and being persecuted by an angry mob?
“A hundred percent. But the problem is that when you point out the absurdity of accusing a Jew of being a white supremacist, it only makes things worse. For some reason, this is a forbidden argument. And so I raised it and I was very careful in the way that I raised it. I just said that if you’re going to accuse me of being the beneficiary of millennia of advantage that comes from my skin color, then you have to understand that my people were literally enslaved to death in the heart of Europe in the middle of the last century. That’s recent, right? If your model doesn’t distinguish between the victims of a white supremacist culture and the perpetrators of it, because their skin color is similar, then your model is just simply an error. But the point is impossible to make.
“I do not leap to the explanation of antisemitism easily, but there is an undercurrent on the American left that now regards Jews as suspect. It was very clear that pointing out the obvious relevance of my Jewish ancestry had a paradoxical effect during the Evergreen meltdown. It flipped logic on its head.”
Riding the BlackHorse
Bret Weinstein became persona non grata at Evergreen; meanwhile, its administration building was occupied by students for over a week. Graffiti calling for the professor’s dismissal adorned walls at the college, and photographs of his students were distributed among the demonstrators. Some of them were harassed on campus and one was branded a “race traitor” simply for the fact that she studied science.
Asked what they have against science, Weinstein says that the “woke” movement wants to dismantle all the tools capable of proving that there is no logic to it. Science is the ultimate tool for that, so they portray it as a moral failing.
Weinstein and his wife had no choice and they were forced to leave their jobs. They sued the college for not being able to guarantee their safety and left with a financial settlement of $500,000 from Evergreen (they had sought a total of $3.85 million). A year after the events at the college they moved to Portland, Oregon.
The Weinsteins were not the only ones who left the college in the wake of the 2017 events. Since then the police chief and the official in charge of multicultural affairs have also left. The president, George Bridges, is still in office although he was supposed to have stepped down; the college is having a hard time finding a replacement. During his tenure, enrollment plunged from 4,220 in 2015 to 2,200 in 2020. The Day of Absence was cancelled, beginning in 2018.
Weinstein now counts himself among the members of the “intellectual dark web,” an informal group of academics and commentators who, to varying extents, oppose woke culture and identity politics. (“Intellectual dark web,” by the way, was coined by his brother Eric Weinstein, a mathematician.) In 2018 Bret Weinstein testified before the U.S. House Oversight Committee on the issue of free speech on American campuses and told the committee about the experience he underwent at Evergreen and the conclusions he drew from it.
He stated in his testimony: “Am I alleging a conspiracy? No. What I have seen functions much more like a cult in which the purpose is only understood by the leaders, and the rest have been seduced into a carefully architected fiction. Most of the people involved in this movement earnestly believe that they are acting nobly, to end oppression. Only the leaders understand that the true goal is to turn the tables of oppression.”
Weinstein has since become a leading figure among alternative intellectuals who voice independent opinions via the social media and other freely accessible outlets. He has gained ardent fans both among researchers and analysts of culture, and among the general public. As befits the extreme dichotomy of both the political arena and the scientific community, there are many who fiercely oppose Weinstein’s approach. Some don’t take him seriously, others view him as a person who is disseminating false and dangerous information, particularly since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. In June 2019 he launched a YouTube podcast called “DarkHorse” in which he and Heying, his wife, host guests and hold conversations about science and culture. Within a short time “DarkHorse” became one of the most successful independent projects of its kind in America.
Weinstein, who supported Bernie Sanders as the Democratic presidential candidate, and was an activist in the Occupy movement in 2011, comes from the heart of the progressive left and still sees himself as part of that camp. “I call myself a reluctant radical. I believe strongly that distributing opportunity as evenly as broadly as possible is among our highest objectives, second only to sustainability, so that as many people as possible can enjoy this marvelous planet and be liberated to produce beauty and insight and all of the good things that humans generate when liberated. I guess the simple way to say it is that nobody is incapable of seeing racial markers, but society must be formally colorblind. It simply has to be. When you walk into a courtroom, your race cannot matter. The law has to be indifferent to these things. And our colleges need to be indifferent to these things as well, like all of the structures that make civilization function. But the trend is going rapidly in the opposite direction, putting race as the most important thing about you. It’s absolutely frightening. It’s very short-sighted and it will result in a catastrophe. It’s regressive.”
Society must be formally colorblind… But the trend is going rapidly in the opposite direction, putting race as the most important thing about you. It’s very short-sighted and it will result in a catastrophe.Bret Weinstein
Since these events you found yourself some unlikely allies, like Republican Congressman Jim Jordan and Tucker Carlson of Fox News. Do you feel closer now to people from the right or did your views evolve?
“It did not change my political perspective, because my perspective is about logic, not social affiliation. I believe that liberal values are the right values. Ironically, those values are now finding refuge on the center-right in the United States. But my feeling is that those values are correct wherever they live. I am a liberal because of those values, but I’m also a progressive, because I believe that our current system cannot be sustained. It is putting humanity in danger and we must therefore change. We have to change if we’re going to be around 200 years from now. That perspective doesn’t depend on anybody agreeing with me.”
When you spoke in Congress, you called this movement a cult. If so, who would you say the leaders are?
“That is the one really fascinating thing. I believe that the leaderlessness of this movement is fairly new. It is also very dangerous. There is an advantage to a movement being leaderless. It means the movement’s enemies can’t attack the leaders and destroy the movement, but there’s a big disadvantage too, which is that nobody is in a position to resist the fringe. Nobody’s in a position to say, ‘Actually, those people don’t speak for us. We’re trying to accomplish this thing, and those people are trying to accomplish something else. That’s not us.’
“Nobody can say that. So it means every bad idea that is anywhere in the neighborhood of the movement gets stuck to the movement. And it also means there’s no one to negotiate with. You need a Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak for a movement, so the movement can actually accomplish something useful. This movement is strangely confused about reality and incapable of learning, in large part because there’s no one to lead the way.”
Their declared objectives are very positive. They seek to end racism and oppression. How do you explain that they took those positive objectives and turned into the oppressive movement that you describe?
“I don’t think it is right to say that they seek good things. Certainly the majority of people who might be marching in the streets peacefully would seek those things. But most haven’t looked very carefully at what the movement that they are part of is actually advocating. I see those positive things more or less as a disguise that is being used to make the movement unassailable, but the movement really wants power. It wants power and it wants to destroy mechanisms on which civilization fundamentally depends. It attacks things like the idea of merit. It attacks the idea that science is anything other than a structure of power. It attacks mathematics. You can’t destroy those things and expect civilization to continue.”
And Jon Stewart too
Weinstein thought he had found in YouTube a perfect platform to hold discussions that deviate from the consensus of one community or another. Without a college president who is influenced by political pressures, YouTube was supposed to be a neutral platform that guaranteed him freedom of expression, especially since his hundreds of thousands of subscribers are generating handsome revenues for him and especially for YouTube. But like that day in the corridor at Evergreen, Weinstein was again mistaken in his analysis.
Recently he received a warning from YouTube that it might remove his channels and block the podcast ׁ(his program is both a YouTube show and an Apple podcast). In their shows, Weinstein and his wife frequently discuss controversial issues – for example, the likelihood that the coronavirus originated in a leak from someone in a laboratory in China. That theory, which until not long ago was identified with conspiracy theorists from the zany right, was censored for months by Facebook and Google. Recently, however, the wind started to blow from a different direction on this subject. In early May the science writer Nicholas Wade published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in which he argued that crucial evidence points to the Wuhan lab as the source of the virus. Later that month the Biden administration announced that it was investigating whether the coronavirus had leaked from the lab. What tipped the scales in the public debate was the declaration by the television comic Jon Stewart (appearing on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”) – a standard-bearer for many on the American left – that he believes without any doubt that the coronavirus emerged from the Chinese lab. In an instant the “wacky conspiracy theory,” which had been suppressed by media companies, became an almost consensual working assumption.
“We were demonized publicly for a year or more for saying the obvious,” Weinstein says, “which was that the evidence such as it is, all points to the lab and there’s no evidence that points to a natural origin so far. For pointing that out, we were portrayed as conspiracy theorists.”
“Many media outlets, news organizations, so-called ‘fact checkers,’ social media platforms and thousands of individual people. All those who made this point that the lab leak was a possibility, were portrayed as conspiracy theorists. Then suddenly for no reason – there was no change at all in the evidence – but suddenly upon the publication of Nicholas Wade’s piece the tide turned and suddenly it became possible for anyone to discuss this hypothesis out loud without being demonized. Which I found bewildering. Literally nothing new had emerged, it was just another presentation, there had been many prior presentations that had gone through the evidence, but suddenly it was like somebody had given people the green light to think for themselves.”
Weinstein received the warning from YouTube in the wake of two conversations he held on the DarkHorse podcast, one about ivermectin and the other about the mRNA method that was used to develop the coronavirus vaccine. Ivermectin is an anti-parasite medication that some in the scientific community maintain is effective and safe for treatment of COVID-19, but that claim is highly controversial. YouTube, like other media companies, limits the reports about this medication in order, they say, to preserve public health.
We were demonized publicly for a year or more for saying the obvious, which was that the evidence such as it is, all points to the lab and there’s no evidence that points to a natural origin so far.Bret Weinstein
Weinstein and Heying were informed by YouTube that they had “two strikes” against them for violating the rules of use. One more strike, they were told, and they’re out: Their account will be shut down. YouTube also demonetized the podcast, barring advertisements on it and thus preventing the couple from earning revenues in this way. Presently the two YouTube channels are the couple’s major source of income. They were informed by YouTube that if they edit or remove some of their video clips they would be able to earn money again. YouTube’s measures thrust Weinstein back into the headlines at the heart of a public struggle for freedom of expression, only this time against a far more formidable foe than a few dozen angry students.
Many commentators on both the right and the left condemned YouTube’s move and viewed it as a worrisome expansion of the censorship policy exercised by the big tech firms. The television commentator Bill Maher termed it an outrageous attempt to suppress debate. The podcaster Joe Rogan invited Weinstein to speak on an “emergency” episode on his podcast. The concern voiced there was that the entities that control information, like Google and Facebook, rely on the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, organizations that have been found to have been guilty of various blunders throughout the crisis. The disturbing result is that the media giants are silencing public discussion and denying the public information, in deference to instructions from governmental bodies.
One might say that they’re doing these things in order to save lives. In the case of a pandemic, misinformation could endanger people and free speech cannot be used to risk so many people’s lives.
“That excuse is always used when people wish to obscure a truth for profit. They always say, you have to keep the truth from the people, otherwise they’ll panic, or they will not do what they need to do in order for us to reach herd immunity or whatever. But the problem is, you don’t have to check very deeply to see that the logic doesn’t add up.”
Weinstein emphasizes that he himself is a fervent supporter of vaccinations and believes that a vaccine based on mRNA could hold out “great promise for the future,” though its current versions have “some clear design flaws.” Asked whether he himself has been vaccinated against the coronavirus, he replies that he has not but that he is nevertheless one of the most vaccinated people I will ever meet. The reason: “Because I was a tropical biologist, I’m vaccinated against some exotic tropical diseases, and because I worked on mammals, I’m even vaccinated against rabies.”
YouTube has reached out to Weinstein with the aim of finding a compromise, but he relates that it’s difficult to hold a dialogue with a faceless company. Is he afraid that in the future he will not be able to broadcast?
“I believe YouTube has made it clear that we are either to self-censor or we will be removed. If people are self-censoring, you don’t get an accurate sense for what they’re really thinking. We have also started broadcasting from Odyssey, which is an alternative platform based on blockchain. We are using that to prevent YouTube from killing the channel off, but we have a very serious problem.”
How do you feel about the YouTube and Twitter ban on Donald Trump?
“I think it’s preposterous, and I say that despite being no fan of Donald Trump. I thought he was a disastrous choice for president. That said, the idea of eliminating a president or a former president from the major tech platforms is ridiculous. You cannot improve conversation by shutting down wrong ideas. And there’s a very clear reason for that. We have no mechanism, there has never been a mechanism, in fact the mechanism is inconceivable that would allow us to reliably distinguish between bad, wrong ideas and ideas that are ahead of their time. The heterodox ideas are on the fringe, with the crazy ideas, and the problem is that it is time that tells us which are which. So if you decide that all of the stuff on the fringe is wrong, well, you’ll be right 99 percent of the time. But what you will do by eliminating that fringe is prevent progress, because all of the future ideas are out there somewhere in among the junkie ideas.
“The founders of the U.S. knew the solution to this problem: the solution was freedom to speak. What they did not know was that we would have tech platforms that are more powerful than governments. Because they could not have conceived of these things, they didn’t provide that essential protection. And we have to fix that.”
YouTube: ‘We follow the official guidelines’
YouTube issued this statement to Haaretz, in response: “Our policy is intended to prevent serious harm and is updated according to the official guidelines. We welcome discussions on potential treatments and clinical tests about the coronavirus. But because of the guidelines of the CDC, the FDA and other health authorities, we are not at present allowing content that recommends ivermectin as a treatment that prevents or treats the coronavirus. At the same time, in the case of content that accords viewers the full picture of the FDA’s position, we allow an exception to the policy.”