Appointment Denied: The Inquisition of Bertrand Russell

In the spring of 1940 amidst the Great Depression and the threat of world war a tempest in a teapot was brewing on the island of Manhattan, where the board of the City College of New York had just appointed the renowned philosopher Bertrand Russell to teach. with the appointment of this most celebrated of scholars, the board had intended to boost the school’s image. Instead, it found itself suddenly embroiled in a controversy involving the city’s conservative Episcopal bishop; charges that it was encouraging radical and communist views at the college; and political in-fighting between the popular liberal Mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, and corrupt Tammany Hall politicians with a hidden agenda. Journalist Thom Weidlich masterfully reconstructs this major political imbroglio, which not only captured the attention of New Yorkers but very quickly received national coverage as a cause celebre. As political theater with both farcical and dramatic elements, the denial of Russell’s appointment is interesting in and of itself. But beyond its intrinsic interest, this 1940s clash between an independent thinker and the self-appointed guardians of public morality retains its relevance in light of today’s cultural debates and arguments over standards of decency and political correctness. Weidlich has written an engrossing page-turner that brings history to life and makes us rethink the perennial issues of free thought and moral standards at institutions of higher learning.