Joshua Katz, a classicist, made tenure at one of the most prestigious universities in America when he was just thirty-six years old. That is not why I know his name, though it is among the reasons that the implosion of his academic life was an affair of national significance. (Our country’s pathological obsession with the glitteriest members of the Ivy League–provincial ecosystems that bear little resemblance to anything beyond their hallowed halls–is among our more embarrassing fixations.) Eighteen years after he received Princeton’s President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, and fifteen years after he made tenure, Katz was ruthlessly fired!, or he was canceled!, or he was justly punished!, depending on which team you play for and how invested you are in your membership in the league.
Katz is among the many citizens whose private catastrophes have been seized upon and treated something like a theatrical drama in which certain breeds of nauseatingly political Americans assume their customary positions and rehearse their familiar scripts. Scavenging the relevant search engines and piecing together a timeline of the Katz affair after the fever has broken has been a fruitful, if bizarre, anthropological project. At a distance, the earnest hysteria and sanctimonious outrage of all the opiners seems not only ridiculous but also hollow, as if none of these pontificators really cared about this particular drama, except as an opportunity to model the Right (or Left) View of it.
The name that I give to this style of participation in public debates is priorism, because it comes with a handy framework, an a priori intellectual and even cognitive filter, into which each successive news cycle or morsel of cultural gossip is smoothly fitted. Priorism is a brutish substitute for interpretation; unlike priorism, responsible interpretation awaits facts, considers developments, and suspends judgment for the duration of inquiry while it resists the impulse to extrapolate wildly from bits and pieces. The primary object of interpretation is to yield understanding, whereas priorism yields only a comforting sense of belonging and a hackish confirmation of an established worldview. Evidence that contradicts its framework is simply ignored or discarded or mocked, and in this way priorists are never thrown into crisis. Theirs is a phony kind of certainty. They, or at least the clever ones among them, are not exactly liars. They tell selective truths, edited accounts, absorbing what is useful and strong-arming it into their system. The spirit that moves even their true opinions is not the spirit of truthfulness but of conformity. Priorism, no matter of which ideological variety, offers its members the armor of a sympathetic, validating community. They are never discomfited, they are never alone, they are only ever affirmed. This, incidentally, is why priorism has these days become a promising career path.
Celeste Marcus, “Priorism, or the Joshua Katz Affair,” Liberties 3 (Winter 2023), 277-278.
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