Professor Klainerman, in the articles you published most recently on platforms such as National Review or Quillette, you positioned yourself firmly against the woke movement. You consider this current to be more than counterproductive for academic performance and scientific research, as well as for the “old ideals of the American Revolution”. What were the reactions you received from colleagues at Princeton, and in the academic sphere generally?
To my surprise I only received positive feedback. Given what happened to other people who spoke out against this madness, I was prepared to be attacked, cancelled maybe, but somehow it never happened. I guess the woke activists at Princeton decided it would be less costly for their goals to just ignore me. On the other hand, I have received many e-mails of support. Many people would congratulate me for daring to expose my position while also expressing their personal fear for doing something similar. This fear to speak out is real and very worrisome and, of course, it brings back the situation I experienced coming of age in Ceausescu’s Romania.
Do you think that the woke movement and cancel culture are phenomena that have the potential to be exported into other university spaces, beyond the United States?
The phenomenon is universal: neo-marxist critical theory (CT) with its manifold manifestations, critical race theory (CRT) being maybe the most pernicious among them, has infected a large part of western academia, especially in the humanities. The disease seems at this moment more virulent in the anglo-saxon countries, like US, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, but I have no doubt that it presents a growing danger for continental Europe as well. France has already been seriously exposed to it, statue toppling, name changing and car burnings having been routine for some time now.
In this case, how could European and, why not, Romanian universities shield themselves from ideological movements similar to those we see taking place now on American campuses?
People who oppose these developments have to start organizing in the name of academic freedom, racial, ethnic and religious neutrality. These are the principles easiest to defend because they are still non-controversial for the vast majority of non-activist people. At Princeton, a group of professors, myself included, is establishing an organization dedicated to the defense of free speech on the NATO model, that is, a woke attack on one is an attack on all. All members of the organization will thus jump in defense of the compromised colleague. This, we believe, is the best way to counteract the raging Facebook and Twitter mob attacks against individuals who dare to speak out. But in the end we have to start addressing the deeper reason behind the woke phenomenon, which is the growing crisis of confidence in our basic institutions. It is not enough to defend free speech and neutrality; we have to be able to articulate a principled defense of western culture and dare to speak out about it.
Despite its many past and present imperfections, what we call western civilization has a remarkable built-in ability to self-improve while, at the same time, generate the extraordinary advances in knowledge and the betterment of the human condition that we have seen in the last centuries. Neo-marxist critical theory (CT) is attacking all pillars of our civilization, that is:
- The primacy of the individual, based on respect of property rights and Rule of Law, based on specific principles of fundamental fairness which have to be applied uniformly to all, with no regard for extraneous considerations such religious or political views, identity groups, past wrongs, or the group-centered notion of disparate outcomes.
- The principles of civil society based on freedom of speech and association, freedom of worship, decentralization of power, checks and balances, as well as a strong belief in personal responsibility and the formative importance of families.
- The principles of a market based society which, at its best, is not only a great engine of prosperity but also a guarantor of freedom and democracy
- Positive belief in the ability of humans to find universal Truths.
Perversely, CT is using westerners’ sense of guilt with respect to colonialism and shameful past slavery practices, to attack the very mechanism which has allowed western society to eliminate them. Conquest, pillaging and slavery where by no means unique to the West and the fact that these are now universally condemned, vastly because of western activism, is often unmentioned.
By promoting moral and cultural relativism, in its own paradoxical, dogmatic way, CT severely undermines our natural ability to defend ourselves. Unfortunately, this negative view of western civilization which CT promotes is dominating our schools and universities through entrenched bureaucracies and woke educators pushing it to students with yet unformed minds and great sensibilities and as such it is going to take a long and hard fight to combat it.
Are American universities resilient enough to absorb the woke movement without affecting the quality of students’ education and scientific research in the long term?
All American universities have invested heavily in the policy of diversity and inclusion which is simply a code name for quotas for certain preferred groups. Diversity for them simply means diversity based on sex, race, ethnicity and sexual preferences, with no regard whatsoever for diversity of points of view, which has in fact narrowed considerably in our universities. This has led to a huge expansion of an administration whose sole function is to push for more and more “diversity”. CT, in its various forms, is the dominating ideology in many humanity and social science departments and has also led to the multiplication of groups of faculty members invested in social activism. Most people, especially those in Sciences and Engineering have been too busily absorbed in their own work to take notice of what is going on. This, by the way, was also true in my case until very recently when I started to realize the increasing gravity of the situation. But many reasonable people are now reacting to the social justice warriors. So, yes, American universities are resilient enough to survive, but not without a fight.
You were in your mid-twenties when you left Romania in order to pursue a Ph.D. in Mathematics at New York University. The communist regime was in full swing and you knew intimately the education system under such a regime. You, have now a great deal of experience in research and teaching in the United States. Do you see any similarities between the practices and objectives of the current woke movement and those of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe?
There are both similarities and differences. Communism in Eastern Europe came to power by force, imposed by the Soviet armies. The woke movement is acting in a democratic environment by making a systematic effort to undermine it. The communist parties, fashioned by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin had a well defined blueprint on how to take and exercise power. I do not think, based on what I have seen so far, that the current cohorts of radical progressives have anything resembling it. Classical marxism was criticizing liberal ideas of the time based on its theory of classes. The woke movement is using instead identity based on race, sex etc. A clear similarity is the intense hatred of capitalism and liberal values, with totalitarian tendencies to impose its opinions and punish the dissenters. But I also see some similarities with national socialism – the strong emphasis on race, though in a reverse manner, and the heavy handed tactics of groups like Antifa may invite comparisons with the brown shirts. Is it surprising that they use the same methods as those of the groups they claim to fight against?
Do you believe that disciplines which necessitate an ability for abstract thinking, like mathematics or logic, are sheltered from the wave of the woke ideology?
Unfortunately the answer is no. There are more and more voices within the mathematical community who are trying to promote the critical culture theory point of view that, what we call Mathematics, is in fact a west-centric cultural construct of white Europeans, and a tool for colonizing the mind. Efforts to “decolonize” math are real, though still marginal. But we have to be vigilant.
In the context presented above, what would you advise a young student or researcher from Romania who intends to enroll in a doctoral program in the United States?
Despite all these problems the US remains the best place in the World to study Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Engineering. Vast areas of social sciences like Economics or Political Sciences are still healthy. Humanities are more problematic but you can still find outstanding scholars everywhere. I definitely suggest to a young student interested in Social Sciences and Humanities, who wants to study in US to focus on the characteristic of specific departments and the reputation of the people they would be interested to take courses with rather than the general reputation of the University.
Professor Sergiu Klainerman was born in Bucharest in 1950. He attended Petru Groza High School, currently Tudor Vianu National College of Computer Science, graduating in 1969. He then attended the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Bucharest, graduating in 1974. After finishing his undergraduate degree, he left for America in order to pursue postgraduate studies in Mathematics at New York University. In an interview with Jean-Michel Kantor in 2019, Professor Klainerman noted, in regards to the study of mathematics in the communist period, that the “isolation [of mathematics in Romania] led to poorly chosen subjects, heavy formalism, and a terrible lack of intuition”.
Professor Klainerman completed his doctoral studies in 1978, under two of the most famous American mathematicians of the second half of the twentieth century, Fritz John and Louis Nirenberg, with a dissertation entitled Global Existence for Nonlinear Wave Equations. For the next two years, Professor Klainerman was Miller Research Fellow a the University of California, Berkeley. From 1980 on, Professor Klainerman began to teach at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Science, one of the most presitigous research centers for mathematics on earth. Since 1987 to the present he has been the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University.
Among his many distinctions and institutional affiilations, Professor Klainerman has been a member of The French Academy of Sciences since 2002, a member of U.S. National Academy of Sciences since 2005, a fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1996 and a fellow of The American Mathematical Society since 2018.
Robert Gabriel Ciobanu is student of the Master’s Programme in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, University of Bucharest and Mercatus Center Frédéric Bastiat Fellow.