All posts by Fred Siegel

Fred Siegel is a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership, a City Journal contributing editor, and an expert on public policy solutions for urban governance. A former fellow at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he is currently scholar-in-residence at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn.

Beware the Political Philosopher

When Reason Goes on Holiday is a new book with a distressingly familiar theme: intellectuals who preached reason and research while glorifying romantic ideals of revolution and the ideas of Lenin, Mao and Castro. The author, Neven Sesardic, deals with some big names in modern philosophy and shows that the wooly-headed politics associated with the Frankfurt School and continental philosophy also afflicted analytic philosophers.

The chapter on a renowned philosopher of science is entitled “Imre Lakatos: Eulogized In England: Unforgiven in Hungary.” In 1944 the charismatic Lakatos was the leader of an underground Communist cell in German-occupied Hungary.  What followed was a real-life version of what Arthur Koestler depicted in Darkness at Noon, where the protagonist, an old Bolshevik imprisoned by the regime he helped to create, accepts the logic of the all-knowing party and confesses to crimes he did not commit.

Lakatos feared that one of the members of the cell, a 19 -year-old Jewish girl Eva Izsak, might be a security risk.  Lakatos’ solution- -in the midst of Hitler’s final solution –-was to persuade Eva to commit suicide on behalf of the party. Virtually the entire cell, including Eva’s boyfriend, supported this. Eva took poison a few days later. Eva Revesz, Lakatos’s wife, quickly took possession of the dead girl’s heavy winter coat. Lakatos became a minister in Hungary’s  Communist government and was later imprisoned by his fellow Communists. When the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 broke out, he fled to England and academic greatness as a philosopher of science.

Hilary Putnam, described in his 2016 New York Times obituary as “a giant of modern philosophy,” was, from  1968 to 1972 a member of a Maoist cult known as the Progressive Labor Party, an offshoot of  Students for  Democratic Society prominent at Harvard. After Nixon’s détente with China, the PLP switched its loyalty to Albania and the glorious thoughts of its leader Enver Hoxa. Putnam was part of PLP in a period when the massive crimes of Chairman Mao had become known, but this had scant effect on Putnam. The brilliant academic philosopher, the man of reason, never seemed to grasp the enormity of Maoist moral deformities.

The problem of political and moral blindness was not confined to individual philosophers. In 1969, at the instigation of Hilary Putnam, the American Philosophical Association passed a resolution calling for immediate American withdrawal from Vietnam. A few philosophers, most notably Sidney Hook, argued that academics could not enter politics without undermining their authority. He was ignored, and the APA went on to adopt a resolution on abortion, IQ, nuclear weapons, the death penalty and the Iraq war. Evidence never seemed at issue. In the mid-1970s, when a million North Vietnamese went into the ocean in rickety boats to escape the Communist dictatorship and its re-education camps, the APA was silent.

At about the same time the APA talked about Tito’s Yugoslavia as a “free society.” Yugoslavia would soon begin to decompose, but not before the APA got caught up defending heterodox Marxists during the Praxis affair. In part Serbian nationalists in cosmopolitan garb, they were indeed oppressed by the once-praised Tito, and they became a rallying cry for the APA in defense of intellectual freedom. However, the Praxis philosophers were not troubled by Tito’s crackdown on Croatian academics.

Philosophers, it would seem, have no greater wisdom about politics than the everyday people they seek to instruct. In fact, detached as they are from daily realities, they may have far less to contribute to politics than they assume.  There is, it seems, an unbridgeable gap between philosophy and politics. Walter Lippmann summed it up when he wrote, “When Philosophers try to be politicians, they generally cease be philosophers.”

America’s ‘Soft Civil War’ Is Here

By Fred Siegel

Twenty-five years ago, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.—premier historian of twentieth-century American liberalism, highbrow courtier to the Kennedys, and grey eminence for the Kennedy’s would-be successors—published The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. The Schlesinger of the 1950s idolized Adlai Stevenson, whose professorial demeanor endeared him to academia. Academic expertise was, as Schlesinger understood it, the key to the American future.

But in the wake of the Black Power movement, feminism, and anti-Enlightenment postmodernism, the quota-driven academia of the late 1980s lost its rationalist moorings. Both lament and warning, The Disuniting of America reflected a Schlesinger disconcerted by the rise, within overwhelmingly liberal academia, of multiculturalism and political correctness, the linked solvents of American identity.

Related:  Left Intellectuals Hovering over the Campus

Well before the evils of Western achievement were written into the catechism of college courses, cultural pluralism—not white supremacy—had become the American norm. Multiculturalism displaced a hyphenated Americanism in which we spoke of Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, and, eventually, African-Americans as the norm. Pluralism assumed that Americans shared a common identity even as they retained ancestral attachments. The problem was that supposed multiculturalists were often “ethnocentric separatists” (in the manner of the recent National Book Award winner Ta-Nehesi Coates) who, in Schlesinger’s words, “see little in the Western heritage other than Western crimes.”

Their mood was “one of divesting Americans of their sinful European inheritance and seeking redemptive infusions from non-Western cultures.” Further, Schlesinger understood that academic debates about what should be taught could be readily translated into the program of the Democratic Party. “The self-ghettoizing of black history or women’s history,” noted respected literary critic Frank Kermode in 1992, “presages a more general social fragmentation, and endangers the precious ideal of political unity in ethnic diversity.”

The connection between political correctness and the doctrine of multiculturalism is integral. PC proscribes open debate. Instead, in classic Communist fashion, it judges an argument on the basis of the interests it serves. Schlesinger clung to a traditional notion of truth: “There is surely no reason for Western civilization to have guilt trips laid on it by champions of cultures based on despotism, superstition, tribalism, and fanaticism. In this regard the Afrocentrists are especially absurd.

The West needs no lectures on the superiority of these ‘sun people’ who sustained slavery till Western imperialism abolished it (and sustain it to this day in Mauritania and the Sudan) . . . .” On numerous campuses today, the once-lionized Schlesinger’s words would today be condemned as “hate speech.” Worse yet, Schlesinger saw the malign consequences of a black nationalism that strives to separate African-Americans from an increasingly colorblind mainstream. He wanly notes that, “If some Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan wanted to devise an educational curriculum for the specific purpose of handicapping and disabling black Americans, he would not be likely to come up: with anything more diabolically effective than Afrocentrism.”

The book has its failings. Schlesinger tries too hard to discern a comparable quest for correctness on the right. He fails. Similarly, the celebrated historian who had spent much of the late sixties lambasting the white-ethnic working class tries to equate the passing revival of a heightened ethnic consciousness with Black Nationalism. He makes much of the 1974 Ethnic Heritage Act, a symbolic piece of legislation with scant consequences.

But Schlesinger also reached for a touch of optimism. “I believe,” he wrote, that “the campaign against common sense would fail.” And to buttress his point from the Left, he cited my old mentor, Irving Howe—the venerable socialist and “storyteller of ideas”—to speak on behalf of Western Civilization, warts and all. “The situation of our universities, I am confident,” Schlesinger writes, “will soon right itself once the great silent majority of professors cry ‘enough’ challenging what they know to be voguish blather.” Shaken by the Right’s ability to speak in terms of American “commonalities,” “the Left,” Schlesinger insisted, “cannot base itself on identity groups.”

For a time it seemed that Schlesinger’s optimism might be justified. The collapse of Communism looked to have put on end to expeditions into Utopia. Then the Clinton presidential years seemed to staunch the drift to academic inanity. Alan Sokal’s exposé—a hoax, whereby a physicist claimed to deconstruct gravity—was published by Social Text, a postmodernist magazine, which took him as being in earnest. The Sokal caper made the front page of the New York Times. It was hard to see how the postmodernists could shake off this fiasco.

Further, two of the heroes of postmodernism, Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man, were exposed as Nazi sympathizers. Articles lamented that postmodernism no longer seemed fresh and innovative, and a few literary critics—most notably, Terry Eagleton—distanced themselves from the reigning academic fashion. But there was never a shout of “enough” from academia, which seemed, on the contrary, to have developed an insatiable appetite for infantile exhibitionism. With few exceptions, faculties had no desire to distance themselves from campus hijinks. The Clinton years proved to be a mere interregnum. It turned out that the- collapse of political and economic Communism paved the way for the cultural Marxism that took hold in the universities.

How Universities Encourage Racial Division

Collapsing standards in high schools and colleges reinforced one another. Ill-prepared college freshmen increasingly needed remedial assistance. They arrived at college equipped with the politically correct attitudes appropriate for what passed as “higher education” in the humanities and “social sciences.” They left with their attitudes reinforced. Likewise, academia increasingly marginalized or repelled students with less politically correct views. The sixties-born faculty repeatedly replicated itself. Last year, when Brandeis University disinvited as graduation speaker the famed and formidable Ayaan Hirsi Ali—an outspoken critic of the Muslim suppression of women—not a single faculty member rose to defend her.

As the faculty became increasingly uniform in its outlook, power passed to students, who were treated as precious consumers. At the same time, academic administrators, now outnumbering the faculty, aimed for a stress-free atmosphere on campus. Colleges across the country replaced their classes on American history with therapy sessions about diversity that demanded not just orthodox thinking but orthodox speaking and feeling as well.

Attempts to upend free speech in order to protect “group rights” has produced a rash of campus hoaxes. Under pressure from feminist ideologues, a “man,” explains David Frum, shifted from a demographic category to an “accusation.” Men accused of rape were denied elementary civil liberties in order to propitiate the gender activists. Civil liberties, wrote Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, “are regarded as a chief obstacle to civil rights.” The call for “safe spaces,” free of challenging arguments produced a Club Med ambience. Nursery school, sighed literary critic Camille Paglia only half-sarcastically, has become the model for college. Students today, Paglia explained in 2015, are “utterly uninformed,” and colleges are responsible for the lack of intellectual discourse in America:

“I’ve encountered these graduates of Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton; I’ve encountered them in the media, and people in their 30s now, some of them, their minds are like Jell-O. They know nothing! They’ve not been trained in history. They have absolutely no structure to their minds. Their emotions are unfixed. The banality of contemporary cultural criticism, of academe, the absolute collapse of any kind of intellectual discourse in the U.S. is the result of these colleges, which should have been the best, instead having retracted into care taking. The whole thing is about approved social positions in a kind of misty love of humanity, without any direct knowledge of history or economics or anthropology.

Related: How PC Corrupted the Colleges

In sum, explains former Harvard president Larry Summers, “there is a kind of creeping totalitarianism on college campuses.” Barack Obama, a product of the PC university, is the most polarizing president since Richard Nixon. Obama has reinforced the “which side are you on?” hyper-partisanship of the university, which is spreading beyond the campus. Ordinary working Americans are bullied by bureaucrats, who were, as Glen Reynolds, puts it, “credentialized” in college without being educated.

These preening bureaucrats are the ideal instruments of government overreach. They impose their ideological agenda in the name of racial, gender, and environmental equity, not to mention obscure IRS rules. And working Americans are forced to pay for a now-vast population of unemployed but subsidized Americans of working age, even as new immigrants—legal and illegal—undercut their wages. Meanwhile, college graduates educated in “victim studies” weaponize what they’ve learned and go to work in the aggrievement industry. The rhetoric of multiculturalism, feared Schlesinger, placed the American republic “in serious trouble.”

Somehow, even as they have spent the last 30 years insisting on the fundamental differences between people, multiculturalists are surprised at the rise of a white nationalism that feeds into the support for Donald Trump. Trump replays the extremism of Obama. Trump and Obama have been drawn into a see-saw dynamic in which each plays off the excesses of the other. Trump speaks to the frustration and anger of people whose wages have stagnated as government bureaucracy has grown dramatically more intrusive. Trump is a peculiar spokesman for that honor-driven egalitarianism that Walter Russell Mead describes as “Jacksonian America.”

“Our ruling class,” writes Angelo Codevilla, “has created ‘protected classes’ of Americans defined by race, sex, age, disability, origin, religion, and now homosexuality, (and perhaps Islam) whose members have privileges that outsiders do not. By so doing, they have shattered the principle of equality—the bedrock of the rule of law. Ruling class insiders use these officious classifications to harass their socio-political opponents.” Worse yet, Obama’s reaction to the San Bernardino terror attack has been to bemoan supposed Islamophobia—no evidence required.

Jim Webb would have been a better spokesman for Jacksonian America. Trump’s a big-city guy with a big mouth who made his money from casinos and TV shows and went bankrupt twice. His appeal lies in his brashness—his willingness to violate politically correct conventions that are widely despised. It was said in mistaken defense of Joe McCarthy that, unlike the liberals, he at least understood that the Communists were our enemies. True enough, but as Obama understands, liberals dined out for decades on the inanities of McCarthyism. Obama hopes that Trump will serve the same purpose.

Related: Too Many Hollow Men on  Campus

It’s been said of Trump that at least he understands that the Southern border needs to be closed, and at least he knows that the Syrian refugees are not, as Obama pontificated, all “widows and orphans.” Trump, we hear, understands that the deal with Iran boosts Iranian support for terrorism. It’s all well and good to suggest in a flight of realism that the Sunnis and Shia should feel free to kill each other. But what Trump seems not to understand is that Bashar al-Assad, the Iranian-backed ruler of the Syrian rump state, is the chief recruiter for the Sunnis of ISIS. Trump, like McCarthy, gets some things right, but in a manner that will pay dividends to his critics.

What rankles most among workaday white Americans is that, even as their incomes and life expectancies decline, and even as the protections promised in the Fourteenth Amendment are eviscerated in favor of new minority carve-outs, they’re accused of benefitting from “white privilege.” The rise of Ferguson’s Michael Brown and Baltimore’s Freddy Gray—the first a thug, the second a small-time drug dealer—as black icons of white oppression, exemplify the perversions of Obama’s America. Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a dramatically diminished racism is asked to account for the ongoing infirmities of the inner-city underclass.

Trump is both a reaction to and expression of liberal delusions. Schlesinger’s fears have largely come to pass; we’ve become what he called a “quarrelsome spatter of enclaves.” Schlesinger was too much a part of the elite to imagine that the class he always thought of as representing the best of the future would come to be despised by a broad swath of Americans for its incompetence and ineffectuality. But what Schlesinger saw on the horizon seems to have arrived, with no sign of abating: we are in the midst of a soft civil war.

This essay in reprinted from City Journal, with permission.


Fred Siegel is a writer in residence at St. Francis College and author of The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class.

The Leftist Intellectuals Hovering over the Campuses

Political correctness – the academic aping of the class struggle — has increasingly generated campus hijinks unintentionally redolent of the cartoonist Al Capp’s 1960s depiction of S.W.I.N.E. (Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything). Recently, referring to the plague of campus hoaxes regarding rape and race, capped off by the ruckus at Oberlin College because of the cultural “disrespect” shown by serving General Tso’s Chicken with steamed instead of fried rice, I was asked by a well-educated friend, “how did academia come to this sorry pass?”

Obscure but Powerful

It was, I replied, a long story but suggested that she read the British philosopher Roger Scruton’s Fools Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left.” It’s an engaging update of Scruton’s 1985 politically incorrect book that got Scruton ejected from English academia. The figures Scruton discusses, such as George Lukacs, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault and Slavo Zizek, “may seem like obscure intellectuals to the man in the street but they are still dominant on the humanities curriculum,” he explains. Humanities students have to swallow a whole load of what Scruton describes as their “nonsense machine.”

“The postmodern campus aggrievement industry,” notes Arthur Milikh, writing in City Journal, aims to introduce a new standard of wisdom: judging the highest achievements of human knowledge by the unreasoned, spontaneous feelings of uncultivated minds.

Intellectuals as Saviors

In order to chart the growth of “the aggrievement industry,” Scruton twines together two strands of twaddle: Western– that is cultural– Marxism, and the intellectual and psychological derangements of its practitioners. Western Marxism can be best understood as the class struggle without the proletariat. It retains the passionate hatred of the bourgeoisie but like Lenin puts forth intellectuals as the saviors of mankind.

Capitalism Deforms the Psyche

Lukacs claimed, “The entire human psyche is so deformed by capitalism” that “it is not possible to be human in bourgeois society…. The “bourgeoisie possesses only the semblance of a human existence.”  Anticipating the black nationalists who insisted whites couldn’t understand black culture and the apologist for Palestinian terrorism Edward Said, who claimed Arab and Islamic culture was beyond the ken of Westerners, Lukacs instructed that Soviet culture was entirely opaque to the bourgeois intellect.

The challenge was never met.

A Lone Persecuted Voice

Scruton first encountered the writing of Louis Althusser on “aleatory Marxism” when he was visiting France during the ectopic revolution of the May 1968 events.  Althusser, a professor at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris depicted himself “as a lone persecuted voice.”  It was but one of his bizarre impostures.  Althusser, who was in and out of mental institutions for his entire life, depicted his time in a German P.O.W camp as one of the few times he experienced freedom.  Althusser, a Communist Party member who invited his many students to join him in the supposed solitude of his persecution, found the site of totalitarianism in neither Stalin’s Russia nor Mao’s China, but rather in “that most frightful, appalling and horrifying of all the ideological state apparatuses . . . namely, the family.”

Few readers other than those looking to be initiates into this occult version of academic Gnosticism can escape from the “dense fog of” Althusser’s “portentous verbiage.” But in 1980 at age 62, Althusser ceased spreading smog directly when he strangled his wife and largely got away with it by pleading professorial incapacitation.  But his work was carried on by his students, who produced Slavo Zizek, the current reigning champion of academic incantation who predictably fabricates one or two books a year.

Disregard Majorities

Zizek, speaking for the line of argument from Lukacs to Althusser that has infested our campuses, explained, “Revolutionary politics is not a matter of opinions but of the truth on behalf of which one often is compelled to disregard the opinion of the majority and to impose the revolutionary will against it.”  Revolutionary will has no need for evidence and argumentation. Nor, Zizek explains, is there any need for ordinary bourgeois logic. You can simultaneously argue, through what he calls paraconsistent logic born of the dialectic, for X and not X.

Speaking at the 2012 Occupy Wall Street protests Zizek, in defiance of conventional evidence, insisted that the United State was more repressive than the government of mainland China, which jails dissenters and their lawyers. “[In] 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV and films and in novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel,” Zizek noted. “This is a good sign for China; it means that people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dream. Here, we don’t think of prohibition, because the ruling system has even oppressed our capacity to dream. Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism.”  In another words, the absence of prohibitions proves the presence of repression.

Neglect of Palpable Facts

At the turn of the twentieth century, the democratic socialist Eduard Bernstein explained presciently, once you go in for an “almost incredible neglect of the most palpable facts,” you end up soon enough at “a truly miraculous belief in the creative power of force.” Zizek, one of the most popular speakers on American campuses, is the fulfillment of Bernstein’s prediction.

“We seem,” says Zizek, “to need Lenin’s insights more than ever…because it is only by throwing off our attachment to liberal democracy that we can become effectively anti-capitalist.” “The ultimate and defining experience of the twentieth century,” he explains, “was the direct experience of the Real as distinct from everyday social reality – the Real, in its extreme violence, is the price to be paid for peeling off the deceiving layers of reality.”  Hence Lenin’s greatness.

In The Leninist Freedom, he cheerfully noted Lenin’s response to Menshevik defenders of democracy in 1920: ‘Of course, gentlemen, you have the right to publish this critique – but, then, gentlemen, be so kind as to allow us to line you up against the wall and shoot you!’ Now that’s direct action for you.  Direct action as in the numerous campus protests of the past year allows for the authenticity of action impossible when ordinary procedures are invoked.

The Sokol Hoax

What’s puzzling is why such a wide variety of protests has recently broken out across American campuses.  Postmodernism seemed to have been beaten back in the early 21st century. The embarrassment of the Sokal hoax (the pomo magazine Social Text printed as genuine a spoof claiming to deconstruct gravity); the revelations that two of the key influences on postmodernism, the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the literary critic Paul de Man, were deeply implicated in European fascism; and the defection of literary critics suggested that postmodernism was on the rocks or at the very least had become old hat.

But while pomo might have become old hat, the selective process whereby the radicals of the 60s had become the college administrators of recent years was part of a development whereby a narrowing number of novitiates were looking to take their vows for the priesthood of the humanities. For many years, students of moderate or conservative views and those perhaps looking for a more promising path to the future chose other careers. But the radicalized rump was energized by the Ferguson protests and motivated by the sense that the dwindling days of the Obama years impelled the need for immediate action.  The upshot has been the return of S.W.I.N.E’s hijinks as academia or at least an increasingly cartoonish section of the humanities seems determined to discredit itself.


Fred Siegel is a Scholar in Residence at St Francis College, Brooklyn, and a contributing editor to Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

After Many Woeful Failures, the Colleges Avoid Change

The students at Mizzou and Yale caught in twin episodes of contrived campus racial hysteria have been described as narcissists and self-indulgent brats catered to by their parents who told them how special they were and expecting the same judgment from college. Handed what they understand as the attitudinal keys to the kingdom, they’re enraged when challenged.

The two highlights are probably 1) the would-be Maoist Missouri media studies professor calling for “the muscle” to shut down coverage of a protest by a young journalist invoking the First Amendment and 2) the Yale student shrieking “who the fuck hired you” at a professor so foolish as to suggest that the subject of culturally appropriate Halloween costumes for Yale’s overgrown brats was in part a matter of free speech. Like President Obama insisting he “can’t wait” for Congress before overriding the Constitution to impose himself through executive authority, “the snowflake totalitarians” insist that its fears need to be propitiated forthwith. Fortunately, both incidents were caught on camera and have gone viral on YouTube.

These young people in America’s increasingly hierarchical society expect to be obeyed. Treated as important customers by their colleges, their faculty and staff assume the customer is always right. What makes their effluvia different from those of the 1960s student protesters is that the context has changed. Then as now, students, short on experience, are often unable to distinguish between considered political perspectives and their emotion-laden ideologies.

But in the 1960s the faculty still had a few conservatives and a fair number of old-line liberals scarred by McCarthyism and firmly wedded to freedom of speech. But 45 years later academic self-selection has produced faculties and over-staffed administrations that devolve from protestors of 1970.  The student protestors are an expression of what academia has been producing over these past decades.

In recent years, academia has done so much to discredit itself that we might have expected calls for reform to be ringing from the halls of Congress. “Federal spending,” notes The Journal, “on loans and grants, on an inflation-adjusted basis, has jumped more than 50% over the past decade to $134 billion last year, and total federal student-loan debt has hit $1.2 trillion.”

On the presidential campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has spoken for new and better subsidies and perhaps even some student debt forgiveness at a time when the national debt has doubled in the past seven years. On the GOP side, Marco Rubio referred in passing, during Tuesday’s Republican debate, to delivering commodified higher education more efficiently. And to be sure, former Indiana Governor and now Purdue University president Mitch Daniels has talked on unbundling the services purportedly provided by higher education so that they can be delivered more efficiently. There are proposals for Contractor model in which “The core business function of the contractor-college would be assembly and quality control rather than running an institution and hiring faculty or holding classes.”

But given the endless scandals and massive failures, there’s been strikingly little political outcry. That’s in part because the average lawmaker has twelve institution of higher learning in his or her district. These institutions are often in close touch with local elected officials who are well aware of how many jobs the colleges account for. Nationally, counting only the four-year operations, colleges are the sixth largest industry in America. They employ 3.6 million people, more than one of every 40 workers in the U.S.

“Higher” education has become a very big business and its size and economic influence has been expressed in its political clout. “Colleges and universities,” explained The Journal, “have become one of the most effective lobbying forces in Washington, employing more lobbyists last year than any other industries except drug manufacturing and technology.” Last year colleges and universities deployed more than a thousand lobbyists at a cost of 73 million dollars. The upshot is that from George Bush the first to Barack Obama’s attempts to rank schools based on supposed outcomes, every effort at accountability has been beaten back.

In the event that reform comes to academia, it will be borne on the wings of competition. On the matter of free speech, the University of Chicago has recently distinguished itself with a strong embrace of traditional notions of free speech. Other colleges like Hillsdale in Michigan, which takes no federal money has made a name for itself by teaching about the genius of the Founding Fathers. If academia is to dig itself out of the hole it’s put itself in to, it will be because many more colleges decide to opt out of the suicidal spiral all too visible at Missouri and Yale.

Postmodernism Comes to CUNY

It’s easy to mock the sheer silliness of postmodernism. But the pretensions of our present-day sophists, who traffic in knowingness as opposed to knowledge, have wormed their way off campus and into American life. No evidence, no logic is required to take a position on any issue since everything is merely about story telling backed by force. Previously accepted, if vigorously debated truths, give off the appearance of dissolution after being flooded by the rhetorical tides of postmodernism.

Indeed, the aim of the so-called progressives and postmodernists is not to pursue truth, as that was once understood in academia, but to pursue “social change” by – in the words of the self-reinvented Malcolm X– “any means necessary.”

Now the postmodern narrative of perpetual white racism spreads into post-campus life.

Rachel Dolezal, a white woman passing as black, constructed a narrative in which she was the victim of racist harassment. But the incidents she described had merely been part of her imagined life. Sean King, one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter, similarly appears to be a white guy passing as black.

Like Dolezal, he claims to be the victim of an anti-black hate crime for which no evidence exists, and he recently accused a black police chief of being an “Uncle Tom.” King, recently hired as a columnist by the New York Daily News, is adept at redefining words, so police brutality becomes a synonym for broken-windows policing.

A white Georgetown student, seeing himself victimized at gunpoint by an African-American, insisted that as someone endowed with white privilege, he deserved to be mugged. Chaya Babu, while taking part in a writers’ workshop with recent college graduates was frightened not by an armed robber but “by his gun.”  She saw herself as a victim of the police. For their part, the workshop group she says identified with the Black robber more than with the police, who “assault and kill black people with what looks like reckless abandon and impunity.”

The narrative is its own evidence; no facts are provided or even suggested. In Babu’s bizarre essay on the robbery, displaced African-Americans, uprooted from their neighborhoods by “the monster of gentrification,” are forced to seek revenge. The story is imagined, since Babu is a newcomer and unaware that most of those neighborhoods were never black.

White self-loathing has now been incorporated into part of CUNY’s makeup. Britta Wheeler, daughter of an academic who taught in Nebraska, defines herself as “a sociologist and a visual, life/art, performance artist.” She seems to have internalized the resentment of her bohemian parents toward their Midwestern surroundings. Wheeler claims to be performing as a character named Belinda Powell, though from the videos she has posted on the internet, it’s hard to tell where Wheeler ends and Powell begins.

Professor Wheeler has performed as a “squanderer” in Times Square, an area populated by comic-book characters cadging money from tourists who like to have a photo taken with Spiderman, Superman, Batman or one of desnudas, naked buxom Latino women with bras and panties painted on. In that setting it’s hard to imagine that anyone who saw her “performance” regarded it as a parody, since like postmodernism it’s hard to spoof what’s already a take-off.

Perhaps that why Wheeler who teaches ethnography at CUNY’s Stella and Charles Guttmann Community College, which was created thanks to a donation from a wealthy white family, has turned to performing her song of ritual self-abnegation, “I’m White and That’s not Right” for an appreciative – virtually all white– audience that had been asked to sing along.

Wheeler/Powell comes out in all white dress that appears too small for her, holding a ukulele and first offers the onlookers gluten-free cupcakes that she has personally baked and announces cloyingly, “I made my dress too.” She sings:

 I know it ain’t right but I’m white

White privilege is a matter of fact

Don’t expect much from me cause I’m free of respectability

I’m ashamed of how some people act

I’m trying to change that

Her “performance” was greeted with cheers and whoops. Wheeler/Powell has also posted online photos of herself posing as a suburban blonde having her nails done in a lounge chair– all in the name of academic advancement.  Among her academic achievements is a short video entitled, “Gonna Change the World One Smile at a Time.”

In the postmodern academy, performance often refers not to academic achievement but rather to acting out the gestures of white penance.

In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche, much beloved by postmodernists, anticipated their folly. Referring to “the men of resentment,” he wrote:

 “When would they achieve the ultimate, subtlest, most sublime triumph of revenge? Undoubtedly if they succeeded in poisoning the consciences of the fortunate with their own misery, with all misery, so that one day the fortunate began to be ashamed of their good fortune and perhaps said one to another: ‘it is disgraceful to be fortunate: there is too much misery!’ But no greater or more calamitous misunderstanding is possible than for the happy, well-constituted, powerful in soul and body, to begin to doubt their right to happiness in this fashion.”

Based on Babu and Wheeler, resentful post-modernists “ashamed of their good fortune” are eager to act out doubts about “their right to happiness.”

SCOTT WALKER VS. THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN

Scott Walker made himself into a presidential candidate with his victory over the minions of Madison, Wisconsin. Despite the howling demonstrations inside and outside the state capital building, Walker succeeded in passing ACT 10.  It stripped the public sector unions of their most powerful organizing tool — the dues check-off, by which unions fees were automatically deducted from paychecks.

Walker has also benefited from a marked improved in the states job climate since he became governor in 2011. He ought to be reaping the political rewards of that success. But, he isn’t resting on his laurels. Walker has ambitious plans to revamp the University of Wisconsin higher education system. But opposition to his college reforms have helped push his state approval ratings into a skid.

The University of Wisconsin system tries to educate 181,000 students at 13 community colleges and 13 four-year universities including the famed University of Wisconsin in Madison. Its annual budget comes to 5.6 billion dollars. The system was shaken in 2013 with a report of a massive slush fund system that rose from a quarter billion to over a billion dollars, according to different estimates. Part of the surplus/slush money came from 5.5% annual tuition increases over the six prior years.

Republican State Representative Steve Nass, chair of the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee,called system officials “educational crooks” and “con artists.” The system president Kevin Reilly was forced to resign. Walker called initially for a tuition freeze but that then began to talk of reforms to reshape the entire system. It seemed like an opportunity to revamp the self-serving academics and administrators who are at the very heart of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

In February of this years, Walker proposed changes for the 2015-17 budget which would free the university system and its 35,000 employees from direct state government control.  The university system would become a semi-autonomous public authority. Walker would reduce direct state aid by 150 million a year, he argued, in return for this new system which would give the colleges and universities the flexibility to reform themselves. “If they were able to get out from underneath the thumb of statue bureaucracy, they could be very effective in saving money for the UW System,” argued Governor Walker.

Walker, referring to the reform, which curtailed collective bargain rights for state employees, called the plan an “Act 10 for the UW System.”

Walker notes that at a salary $144,000 a year, he receives less compensation than 407 University of Wisconsin system employees.  Moreover he suggested that he hoped to see additional teaching hours for full-time faculty, a reduction in the number of administrators and an enhanced relationship with local business for the two-year colleges.

Politically, Walker’s plan to freeze tuition and get more output from underworked and overpaid academics seemed appealing. But he’s met considerable opposition from Republican state representatives who don’t think the colleges are capable of reforming themselves. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), insisted “that autonomy doesn’t make sense because regents don’t want to make changes and they could use their new authority to dramatically increase tuition.”

Walker’s plan isn’t dead yet but it’s on life support.  Prominent Republicans suggest that he will have to compromise and reduce planned cuts to higher education to win final budget approval. It’s not clear how the outcome will effect Walker’s presidential plans. He’s supposed to formally announce his candidacy in July after the state budget has been achieved. A hard-fought victory could sap his strength at home.


Fred Siegel is the author of Revolt Against the Masses, just reissued in an updated paperback edition.

How Our Campuses Came to Reject Free Speech

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John Dewey said the job of education was to free students from the intellectual captivity imposed by “village truths,” the groupthink version of reality they had grown up with. But the irony now is that liberalism, once created in opposition to small-town traditionalism, has generated its own all-encompassing “village truths” creating conformism on today’s campus.

Students are now subject to a curriculum watered down by political correctness. So it comes as news to even well-read young people that there once was an anti-Communism and anti-Stalinism of the left in America. It was a tradition upheld by people like the literary critic and Yiddishist Irving Howe and the historian Eugene Genovese. But Howe’s and Genovese’s anti-Stalinism made them objects of enmity for the anti-anti-Communists of the New Left, who have dominated academia for the past three decades. The New Left aped the Communists by shutting down all campus debate, and in so doing, laid the groundwork for political correctness.

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Frank Macchiarola, an Extraordinary Man

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People reading Frank
Macchiarola’s obituary today will, no doubt, be struck at the variety of his
achievements. Frank, who wrote for this site,  was widely regarded as the
most successful New York Schools Chancellor, but he was also a success as a
Law School Dean, Chair of Charter Commissions, CEO of the NYC Partnership and
President of St Francis College.  I had worked with Frank in a few of
these roles.  But it was only after I became Scholar in Residence at St.
Francis that I saw the full dimensions of his extraordinary persona.

Slowly walking
through the halls of St Francis with Frank, a school of nearly 3,000 students
was itself an experience to remember.  I say slowly because every few
steps a student would stop Frank to speak with him. After a warm greeting, the
student would tell their college president what was new in their student
lives.  And like the best of the old time ward politicians – Frank who was
a member of the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club in Brooklyn – knew each by
name and situation.

When Frank and I had
lunch it was smack in the middle of the student cafeteria where he ate
regularly.  And there as he and I talked about subjects such as the
over-financialization of the national economy, the fiscal misgovernance of New
York and the role of religion in enhancing democracy, we always paused when a
student came by. Frank would first tell the student what we were talking about –
suggesting that it was a topic he needed to pay attention to – then he would
listen to their concerns. 

Some would come by to
tell him that they had improved in their grades in an area where Frank had told
them they needed to pick up the pace. Others would lay out an ongoing problem.
He was warm but firm sometimes telling the student that they simply weren’t
working hard enough. This was in loco parentis in its very best
form.   Listening, I was struck not only by how much he knew about
each student but even more by his ability to connect with the student through
the problem at hand. In talking to him, the students, as they told me, realized
that he had really listened to them in their previous conversations. 

His father was a sanitation
worker who placed a high value on education. Frank attended St Francis as an
undergraduate before he went on to a law degree and a PhD. in Political Science
at Colombia.  What he wanted for today’s students, he told me, was the
same kind of personal attention he had received as young student in the early
1960s. Frank’s intelligence, warmth and concern suffuse the halls of St
Francis. The successes of the St Francis students he has nurtured will be an
important part of his legacy.

150 Years of Contempt for Free Markets

Alan S. Kahan has cast new light on an ongoing conflict with origins in classical antiquity if not earlier. Kahan’s Mind vs. Money: The War Between Intellectuals and Capitalism is a learned and engaging account of the tension between the amorality of the marketplace and the moralism of would-be priestly authorities. Until the Enlightenment, merchants were forced to bow before the courtly classes of the aristocracy, which staffed the military, and the clergy, which surveilled the public morality of the peasantry. But the Enlightenment, in challenging the authority of the aristocracy and the priesthood, opened up space for unbowed commerce, and hence the merchant middle class, to thrive. There are those, once largely on the right, today largely on the left, who have never forgiven the Enlightenment for this sin against the would-be guardians of morality.
The book’s central themes were laid out in 1834 by the German poet Heinrich Heine. Heine, who had nothing but contempt for American money-making, spoke of the United States as “that big pig-pen of freedom/Inhabited by boors living in equality.” Heine’s romantic ambitions yearned to transcend mere material freedom. He saw the intellectuals as the basis for the new aristocracy of virtue. “It is no longer a matter of destroying the old church,” he explained, “but rather building a new one, and far from wanting to annihilate the clergy, today we want to make ourselves priests.” But while Heine hoped a clerisy would remake the world he also saw an abyss ahead. “A drama will be performed in Germany,” he prophesied, “in contrast with which the French Revolution will seem a mere peaceful idyll.”

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Is College Education Too Narrow?

In trying to explain why even the best of students have sometimes received an exceedingly narrow education, former Congresswoman Heather Wilson touches on the issue of academic self interest. “Perhaps,” she writes, “faculty members are themselves more narrowly specialized because of pressure to publish original work in ever more obscure journals.” It’s a good point that has an even wider ambit than she suggests. Once upon a time, the now quaint notion of preparing students to be citizens served as a counterweight to curricular self-dealing. Preparing students to be citizens meant that you needed to provide a range of broad based courses as a foundation for participation in the adult world. You needed required courses in American history, literature and institutions. But when an interest in citizenship was increasingly supplanted by mere attitudinizing, an important constraint on the faculties was affected. Supplied with a myriad of reasons ranging from globalization to multiculturalism they could slip the harness of being forced to teach the once crucial survey courses. Instead they could put their energies into what they were really interested in, their areas of specialty, that is to say themselves. The upshot was that a humdrum course on American literature could be replaced by classes on Foucauldian readings of American literature or narratives of third-world liberation. On campus everyone could be happy. Good students could pride themselves on their ability to decipher difficult arguments while broadening their geographic horizons. And faculty could use the classes to either coast or embellish their specialized arguments.
For a long time the faculty failure of accountability was safely ensconced behind the worthy rhetoric of academic freedom. But Ms. Wilson’s Washington Post op-ed is fortunately part of a trend challenging the claim of academia to disinterested virtue.

Trying To Answer Paul Berman

On June 4th of this year Paul Berman published an extraordinary 28,000 word New Republic essay on contemporary Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan of Oxford University and his liberal apologists, Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, who write for the New York Review of Books. Berman’s essay was criticized by some for being too long, too meticulous, for being too concerned with ironing out any misunderstanding that might be wrung from his words. But the just published tepid reply by Scottish Malise Ruthven, a Scottish historian of Islam, for August 13th issue of the New York Review of Books suggests that, for now, Berman’s tack has cornered his would be critics.

Ruthven finds the US denial of a visa for Ramadan to teach at Notre Dame in 2004 inexplicable. The only mark against Ramadan, says Ruthven, is that he once donated money to a Palestinian charity later put on a terrorist watch list. This is disingenuous. Here’s Berman on some of Ramadan’s history:

As early as 1993, at the age of thirty-two, he campaigned in Geneva to cancel an impending production of Voltaire’s play Muhammad, or Fanaticism. The production was canceled, and a star was born – though Ramadan has argued that, on the contrary, he had nothing to do with canceling the play, and to say otherwise is a “pure lie.” Not every battle has gone his way. He taught at the college of Saussure, where his colleagues were disturbed by his arguments in favor of Islamic biology over Darwin. This time, too, Ramadan shaped the debate to his own specifications by insisting that he never wanted to suppress the existing biology curriculum – merely to complement it with an additional point of view. A helpful creationist proposal. But the Darwinians, unlike the Voltaireans, were in no rush to yield.

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“Liberal” Professorial Apologists For Radical Islam

Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash are two of the leading critics of Ayan Hirsi Ali whom they deride as an “enlightenment fundamentalist” for her defense of free speech in the face of violent Islamic intimidation. They are also two of the leading apologists for the sophisticated Islamism of Tariq Ramadan, the grandson and intellectual heir of his grand-father Hasan al-Banna the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood from which flows Al Qaeda and other variants of Sunni salafism.

Buruma, Garton Ash, and Ramadan all have something in common – they are all university professors. Garton Ash is, inappropriately enough, the Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Anthony’s College, Ramadan is his colleague at St Anthony’s while Buruma is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. Free speech as evidenced by Buruma’s book on the murder of Hirsi Ali colleague Theo Van Gogh is evidently not a “human right” worth defending if it offends Muslims.

Fortunately Paul Berman, a writer in residence at NYU, has taken all three to the wood shed, in an extraordinary 28,000-word New Republic essay. Ramadan, Berman shows, is an expert at double speak. In a New York Times article in which Buruma served, unwittingly or not as Ramadan’s publicist, the Islamist theorist explained how his grandfather an admirer of the Falange and Mussolini , supported a politics entirely compatible with parliamentary democracy. Buruma’s response was to lie with silence. But then again, as Buruma explained it “we agree on most issues.”

Ramadan is at his best when he can prepare an elaborate explanation for why Islamist and liberal values are compatible. But when facing then French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, he stumbled when forced to respond on the spot. Sarkozy asked Tariq Ramadan if he agreed with his brother Hani Ramadan who had argued in line with Islamic law, that adulterous woman should be stoned to death. Asked to agree or disagree with his brother Tariq Ramadan said he favored a “moratorium” on such stoning. What was stunning about this exchange is that in the current intellectual climate established by multiculturalism, it was Sarkozy who was seen as regressive, even racist, for having forced the issue.

The parallels here with the Soviet apologists of the 1930s and 40s are striking. Then as now the argument is that Communists and liberals/Islamists and liberals are all in favor of human rights, they just have a somewhat different understanding of what they mean. Then to point out the differences was denounced as red-baiting, today it’s decried as racist. In the words of the Yiddish proverb, “A half truth is a whole lie.” Expect Buruma and his friends to reply to Berman’s direct hit.