Today’s university seems obsessively compassionate about the downtrodden, far more than the usual academic Marxist celebration of exploited workers. Entire departments – African American Studies, Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, Latino/a Studies – strive to uplift those suffering from white male heterosexual oppressors. In African and Latin American Studies indigenous people are always blameless “good guys” while under-graduates are relentlessly implored, usually with academic credit, to “make a difference” or “work for social change,” i.e., rallying deadbeat tenants against predatory slum landlords. English Departments – even History Departments–increasingly celebrate heretofore repressed “voices” of the forcefully silenced. Schools of Social Work and Education now require taking vows to advance “social and economic justice” in order to graduate. Hard-head Business Schools are hardly immune – mandatory Business Ethics courses might teach that cowboy capitalism must be sympathetic to those unable to compete in cruel marketplaces.
Matters are not, however, as morally black and white as they seem. Fervent compassion for the repressed, suppressed, disadvantaged, disabled, stigmatized, marginalized, exploited and all the rest is selective, and this selectivity is hardly accidental or random. In a nutshell, liberal academics are wonderfully compassionate, caring and sympathetic but only for those who seem eternally mired in dependency to be ameliorated via expanding state power. If victims are disinclined to demand this expanded state power to rescue them from misery, then their consciousness must be raised so these newly “educated” souls can lobby for income re-distribution or some other handed-down benefit.
A class in black politics, for example, rarely dwells on Booker T. Washington’s plea for self-reliance or recognizes that black Caribbean immigrants prosper via hard work, thrift and delayed gratification while shunning politics. This message is unspeakable heresy and, “inauthentic.” A would-be professor expressing such views would never even be hired. The orthodox recipe for accomplishment is endlessly repeated semester after semester: mobilize, vote for candidates promising government handouts, demand new entitlements and otherwise crave measures to further deepen dependency on officialdom. One does not create wealth; one gets wealth by demanding it from on high. In this odd universe, a multiple choice question: “The best route to college admission is (a) study hard or (b) take political action against elites for stronger affirmative action” will be correctly answered with “b.”
This selectivity will, naturally, be denied. But, consider the academic unpopularity of a group that in many ways is economically and socially comparable to most echt downtrodden: Hillbillies (a/k/a White Trash, Trailer Park Trash, Appalachians). Good-thinking academics despise this group, and are absolutely convinced that these beer-bellied, ignorant, bigoted, religious fanatics put Bush-worse-than Hitler in the White House. These are the folk who love Stand-by-your Man country music, are avid gun owners who hunt, drive full-sized American pick-ups, wear crude sexist tee-shirts, follow NASCAR, drink cheap domestic beer, are aficionados of chicken-fried steak and, most critically for our purposes, are patriots unimpressed by anti-Americanism, post-modern theories of social reality, the primacy of race, place and gender in interpreting texts (i.e., reality) and all the other ephemera running wild in today’s academy. Politically, while they may be vulnerable to racist demagogues, and have been known to feed at the public trough, they are – to use the German word lacking an English equivalent – unwillig (difficult to manage). A Department of Hillbilly Studies boggles the mind even in today’s loopy academic environment.
One can only imagine a few Good Ole Boys wandered into a Duke classroom where our liberal champion of the oppressed explains how America is the world’s number one terrorist, how soaring prosperity brings dangerous income inequality, why the apparent free market in ideas is just a oligarchic ruse and why the nefarious oil companies block public transportation so yahoos can still drive their gas-guzzling vintage red/orange street legal 1969 Dodge Chargers R/T with a 426 Hemi (bedecked with Confederate flags, no less). Unlike grade-grubbers and those admitted to reverse historic under-representation, the Good Ole Boys not only reject this nonsense, but this repugnance would be immediate and vocal. Bo and Cooter would be more than “offended;” they would be downright pissed, and not shy about defending General Lee’s honor (the car, not the Confederate war hero) or America. Nor would this outrage be manageable with the usual academic arguments – Bo is oblivious to deconstructing texts and all the other mumbo jumbo. If the professor offered a post-colonial interpretation of Iraq, Bo would tell him to take his fat ass back to Russia if he doesn’t like it here. Hard to top that snappy rejoinder. They (and their many cousins) unabashedly admit that they attend college to drink beer and fool around, not promote gender equality. At most Cooter might mumble solidarity with third-wave feminism if he is closing in on the kill in the back seat of his perfectly restored ’57 Chevy Impala. In ways not yet understood by science, Hillbillies have been vaccinated against PC nonsense and therefore immune to all the professorial entreatments. (Perhaps some pharmaceutical company might want to investigate this natural immunity.) They certainly don’t want wooly-headed professors badmouthing their patriotism and religion, let alone telling Bo and Cooter to explore more deeply their inherently ambiguous sexual identities.
The professorial taste for promoting dependency is predictable. Today’s academics, especially in the social sciences and humanities, may enjoy comfortable, well-paid lives, but outside the classroom they are largely politically irrelevant. This is a far cry from the 1960s and the Great Society when countless professors were solicited experts, running to and fro, speaking into Princely ears. A CNN sound bite may be the high point of one’s public intellectual career today, and given the failure of past made-in-the-academy advice, even this will be disregarded. The sprawling, invasive EU-style bureaucratic state thus appeals to the clever but politically impotent experts-in-waiting. They would dearly love to counsel Ministers just how to micro-manage family life (perhaps a visiting role model service or redefining “family”) or how salaries could be made to reflect John Rawl’s egalitarian concept of justice, not arbitrary factors such as skill and ambition.
But, government by enlightened professors is unreachable without hordes of those forever dependent on government largess. This is, sad to say, what made the Katrina mess so eye-catching to outraged academics – hundreds of thousands of poor people, mostly African Americans, desperately pleading for Washington’s salvation while the evil “conservative” Republican administration with its self-reliance talk fiddled. A perfect ideological storm! If only FEMA bureaucrats had solicited professor expertise they would have socially constructed a narrative to reconstruct the New Orleans 9th Ward in record time. And the raised consciousness would protect against future floods. Don’t laugh – my obsessively trendy alma mater (Bard College) has a student-run project to rescue Katrina victims by applying the insights of class, race and gender analysis. When telling me about this wonderful idea Bard asked for a contribution but this appeal, alas, fell on deaf ears since I don’t believe in money. Every professor like me knows that “money” is socially constructed, invented by white European males as an instrument of social control to subjugate people of color, as the current sub-prime lending mess demonstrates.