Tag Archives: political corrrectness

Our Exquisitely Sensitive Academic Culture

Mind your Ps and Qs,” Wikipedia tells us, “is an English expression meaning ‘mind your manners,’ ‘mind your language,’ ‘be on your best behavior.’” Recent advice provided in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that academic conference goers also need to mind their PC.

The Chronicle’s July 7 “Daily Briefing” to subscribers links to two “Talkers” who draw, unintentionally I am sure, a chilling picture of how brittle and thin-skinned academic culture has become. In one, “April Hathcock, a librarian at New York University, writes about race fatigue after attending an academic conference,” and in the other “Lucy Allen, an English professor at the University of Cambridge, argues in her blog that you shouldn’t fall back on the common question ‘Where are you from, originally?’”

In “‘Otherness’ and Conference Advice,” Professor Allen rejects the advice given in another recent Chronicle piece, Robin Bernstein’s “How to Talk to Famous Professors.” One example Bernstein suggested was “the old standby: Where are you from originally?” I suspect that what Bernstein had in mind — certainly what she could have had in mind — was that a nervous junior convention goer could reasonably assume that famous Professor Whatshisname from the University of Virginia lives in Charlottesville, and thus asking, “Where are you from, originally?” is a perfectly natural, neutral, unloaded conversation silence filler.

Professor Allen, however, no doubt ever attuned to dog whistles, hears something sinister: “There are many ways,” she warns, “to put your foot in it at conferences. But I’m fairly sure that using a phrase that’s stereotypically associated with ingrained racism/xenophobia is one of the more easily avoided ones.”

Just as everything looks like a nail if all you have is a hammer, so, too, everything can look like a micro- or even a macro-aggression if much of your personal and professional life is spent inhaling a miasma of race, gender, and ethnicity. Thus, after spending five days at the American Library Association convention in Chicago, New York University librarian April Hathcock writes, “Race fatigue is a real physical, mental, and emotional condition that people of color experience after spending a considerable amount of time dealing with the micro- and macro-aggressions that inevitably occur when in the presence of white people. The more white people, the longer the time period, the more intense the race fatigue.”

Ms. Hathcock is tired “of being tone-policed and condescended to and ’splained to.” She’s tired “of listening to white men librarians complain about being a ‘minority’ in this 88% white profession – where they consistently hold higher positions with higher pay – because they don’t understand the basics of systemic oppression.”

They’re librarian, she adds disdainfully, “You’d think they’d know how to find and read a sociology reference, but whatever.” She’s tired, in short, of white people, even “well-meaning white people” who want to “‘hear more’ about the microaggressions you’ve suffered and witnessed, not because they want to check in on your fatigue, but because they take a weird pleasure in hearing the horror stories and feeling superior to their ‘less woke’ racial compatriots.”

But “Don’t get me wrong,” she concludes. It wasn’t all bad. “I caught up with friends and colleagues of color and met new ones. These moments kept me going. And I did have some moments of rest with a few absolutely invaluable and genuine white allies.” Who knows? Maybe even some of her best friends are white, though it sounds like whites are at best allies in “this racial battle called life.”

How sad … and depressing since her sentiments are no doubt not unique.

Some New and Narrow Versions of Academic Freedom

The right to breathe is not generally understood as the right to choke others.  The right to move freely is not widely understood as the right to slip into your neighbor’s house in the middle of the night unannounced.  The right to listen to Neil Diamond’s greatest hits is not universally interpreted as the right to make other people listen to “Sweet Caroline.”

And yet these days more than a few people have decided that “academic freedom” guarantees your right to silence other people who are attempting to express views you disagree with.

This sounds like a joke, but it has been put forward in earnest by many student protesters in the last few years.  I first heard the “I’m-exercising-my-academic-freedom-to-shut-you-up” rationale in connection with the Black Lives Matter protesters who invaded the Berry-Baker Library at Dartmouth in November 2015.  But it has since become the common currency of lawless protesters, whether at Berkeley, Middlebury, or Claremont-McKenna.

Perhaps the open letter from Pomona College students to President David Oxtoby demanding that he “take action against the Claremont Independent editorial staff for its continual perpetuation of hate speech, anti-Blackness, and intimidation toward students of marginalized backgrounds,” is the perfection of this conceit.  The Pomona students decided that “free speech” has become “a toll appropriated by hegemonic institutions.”

Campus Life Not Like a Baseball Game

Actually, on that last point, they are right.  Colleges and universities are “hegemonic institutions.”  I don’t know if those students understand their own catchphrases, but translated into plain English, this simply means that colleges impose broad control over their community of faculty members and students.  They have rules above and beyond the rules of the surrounding society.  If you go to a baseball game, you are free to boo the other team and scream at the umpire if you think he made a bad call.  On campus—at least in principle—you must listen quietly when someone argues a point you disagree with, and if the moderator in a debate makes what you think is a bad call, your only legitimate option is to explain why you think it is wrong.

Those rules are part of what we mean by “academic freedom.”  Clearly, academic freedom is not the natural way people behave towards each other.  It is an artificial thing, a “social construct,” as we say these days.  And because it is artificial, it only works in special circumstances where people agree to forego their right to boo the other team, shout imprecations at the umpire, or move beyond words to the kind of hard buffets that put professors of political science in the hospital.

Three cheers for institutional hegemony, without which no would have academic freedom.  “Good times never seemed so good,” Sweet Caroline.

But how is it that good old Hegemony U has found itself so incompetent in upholding its most basic rules of the road?   Observers have offered some pretty persuasive answers to why Middlebury President Laurie Patton has been so feckless; why UC Berkley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks displayed the steadfastness of a saloon door; and why Claremont McKenna President Hiram Chodosh has risen to the occasion with the moral dignity of a fidget spinner.

The answers include the continuing descent into postmodern insouciance, where no encompassing principle presides; the swarming animosities of identity politics, which have stung all the beekeepers into submission; and the progressive left’s willingness to kick away the ladder of free speech by which it climbed to dominance, lest anyone else try that ascent.

Up for Grabs for a Century

I have one small addendum to that list of explanations for why our defenders of academic freedom went out to lunch and never came back.  I suspect that some of them got confused by the menu.  “Academic freedom,” an artificial thing, a “social construct,” isn’t amenable to scientific precision.  It isn’t Mars or Jupiter, sitting in the heavens as a definite planet.  It is more like Pluto or one those other trans-Neptunian objects with strange names, such as the dwarf planet Haumea:  detectable but not settled into any plain definition.

Because “academic freedom” isn’t any one, definite thing, it has been up for grabs for over a century.  The grabbing began in 1915, when the newly formed American Association of University Professors offered its “Statement of Principles,” that in twenty-some pages of stately syntax and high-minded declaration laid out a commanding vision of the intellectual rights of America’s university faculty.  The 1915 AAUP statement didn’t settle anything.  For the next 25 years, the AAUP and college presidents went on wrangling, with numerous summits and unsatisfactory attempts to reach

For the next 25 years, the AAUP and college presidents went on wrangling, with numerous summits and unsatisfactory attempts to reach an agreement.  In 1940, they did, at last, reach an agreement of sorts and issued a much shorter and—in many ways—less satisfactory statement.  The 1940 AAUP Statement remains in force at the vast majority of American colleges and universities as their basic position on academic freedom.  But having discovered the fluidity of the idea, the academic world could not stop with just two statements.

There are in fact now many thousands of statements, interpretations, codicils, redactions, and expostulations about academic freedom.  The World Catalog lists nearly 100,000 books on the topic.  “Look at the night and it don’t seem so lonely,” Sweet Caroline.

My colleague David Randall and I have undertaken the task of providing a little bit of order to this chaos.  We have just posted a chart that offers an easy comparison of what we take to be the top ten authoritative treatments of academic freedom.  It gives the reader the opportunity to see at a glance which definitions are rooted in the pursuit of truth, which ones connect tenure, and which ones call for sanctions against violators, and so on through 25 categories.  It is a work in progress if we are still allowed to talk about progress in the post-modern anti-hegemonic hegemony.

I offer this in part as a service to Presidents Paton and Chodosh and Chancellor Dirks. They can now pick the definition that best lends itself to doing nothing while their students riot, or imposing “sanctions” on violators that have the permanence of a Snapchat message.  “Charting Academic Freedom: 102 Years of Debate” may also, however, prove to be of some value to others who have found little clarity in the swirl of conflicting claims about academic freedom.

Explore, and find the most compelling definition and sing in your best imitation of Neil Diamond, “How can I hurt when I’m holding you,” Sweet Caroline.  Well, you can and will, but you will still be better off knowing that some definitions of academic freedom are a lot better than others, at least if you care about creating a civilized place for learning.

Printed with permission from the National Association of Scholars

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.