The Wacky World of Victim Studies

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Bruce Bawer’s new
book, The Victims’ Revolution:  the Rise of Identity Studies
and the Closing of the Liberal Mind
, arrived on the front page of the “Back
to School” issue of the New York Times Book Review.  Any
author of a book on higher education would have to be delighted to be awarded
such prominence.  The review itself, however, sliced in the opposite direction,
declaring The Victims’ Revolution to
be quaintly out of touch with the realities of American higher education;
behind the times; mistaken in its basic points; “lacking in balance;”
full of “dubious assertions;” guilty of preciosity in its criticisms;
and oblivious to the real issues of the day.  


The reviewer, Andrew
Delbanco, professor of American Studies at Columbia University, earlier this
year offered up his own diagnosis of what ails American higher education
now.  In College:  What it Was, Is, and
Should Be
, Delbanco argued that “the vast majority of college students are
capable of engaging the kinds of big questions–questions of truth,
responsibility, justice, beauty, among others–that were once assumed to be at
the center of college education.”  His is
the voice of a moderate reformer who is at peace with most of the changes in
higher education that have arisen in the last half century, including its
massive expansion, but who sees some room for improvement.

Delbanco’s biggest concern
is “keeping the college idea alive for more than the privileged few.”  And he extols the idea that college should
engage students in “civic life beyond campus,” by involving them in social advocacy
and “debate over current issues such as gay marriage, gun control, or civil
liberties in wartime.”  The word
“debate,” of course, suggests reasoned argument on opposing sides of an issue,
and the college campus these days is not a place where that happens very often
on the topics Delbanco mentions.  In the
last chapter of College, he pauses to
disparage the “genres” that books about higher education “usually” belong
to:  jeremiad, elegy, “call to arms,” and
“funeral dirge.”  His own book, by
contrast, is a tempered celebration of the idea of “college as a community of
learning.”

Emphasis on ‘The Gaze’

I don’t want to take more
space to review the reviewer, but knowing a little of the background helps to
put the The Victims’ Revolution into
context. It is a book the New York Times
judged too important to ignore but one that argues something that is anathema
to progressive sensibilities.  Having it
reviewed by someone who holds that racial preferences in college admissions
help to build community by ensuring–Delbanco quotes Justice Powell’s decision
in the 1978 Bakke case–“the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views”
pretty much guarantees the verdict Delbanco delivers.

It was the wrong
verdict.  Bawer’s book is an indispensable
guide to the “identity studies” side of contemporary scholarship and academic
programs.  But let’s note quickly what The Victims’ Revolution is not.  It isn’t a critique of American higher
education as a whole.  Bawer has nothing
to say on the natural sciences, the sustainability movement, the crisis in
student loans, the rise of online college programs, or dozens of other
topics.   He has leveled his gaze instead
at what happens in women’s studies, black studies, queer studies, and Chicano
studies, and has glanced also at the penumbra of victims’ studies:  disability studies, fat studies, men’s
studies, and white studies.  To be sure,
he draws larger lessons.  The victim
studies departments–all of them–confuse scholarship with advocacy, almost
always to the disadvantage of the former. 
And in doing so, they betray the basic promise of liberal education to
free the student from the particular and the local to enter into the larger
world of ideas.

When I say Bawer has
“leveled his gaze” at these topics I used the word “gaze” in the old sense of
looking at something with care and inquisitiveness.  In the world of victims’ studies, “gaze” has
acquired another meaning.  It is an act
of aggression by someone who, by taking notice of you, robs “you of your right
to define yourself.”  The gazer is the
capital-O Other who exercises a despotic and dispossessing will over you.  Bawer has an excellent ear for this sort of
jargon and has taken the trouble to track down many of the key terms.  The trope of the oppressive gaze comes from
Jean-Paul Sartre.  He hears it at a
November 2010 meeting of the National Women’s Studies Association in Denver,
where a speaker reflects on her first day teaching a Women’s Studies class and
is defined by the students’ “gaze” as “white and middle-class.”   This could, of course, been because she is
white and middle-class.  It is doubtful
that the students’ collective gaze could have performed the same trick if she were
poor and black. 

 

Reason Itself Is ‘A Hoax’

But the students’
penetrating gaze is nothing compared to the threat of the heteropatriarchal “male
gaze,” to escape which each year thousands of womyn retreat to the clothing-optional
Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in a remote corner of the state.  Bawer hears an account of this “completely
female-worshipping event” from a speaker at a Cultural Studies conference in
Berkeley.  He also notices black studies
impresario Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writing about the artistic flowering that
happens when “free of the white person’s gaze, black people created their own
unique vernacular structures and relished in the double play that these forms
bore to white forms.” 

Those are small examples of Bawer’s metier.
 His book is a closely observed account
of victim studies conferences, his personal meetings with leaders in these
fields, his readings of key works, and his conversations with critics of victim
studies such as Shelby Steele, Alan Kors, and Steve Balch. 

At a certain level this is material that is painfully familiar to anyone
in higher education who isn’t sound asleep. 
That is Delbanco’s point of departure: we’ve heard it all before.   As Delbanco summarizes:  the “jargon-spewing careerists posing as
radicals, semi-literate professors of literature, and widespread condemnation
of reason itself as a hoax perpetrated by the powerful on the powerless.”  This indeed is the burden of Bawer’s book,
but Delbanco sees in it only “a modicum of truth” and “mostly caricature.”

No, it is the opposite:  a modicum
of caricature, and mostly truth.  The
modicum of caricature stems from the victim studies fields themselves which
work hard to look important.  Women’s
Studies, Black Studies, Queer Studies, and so on are to a large degree about
showmanship.  They trade in outrageous
assertions and practitioners often engage in a form of one-upmanship in search
of a more-radical-than-thou denunciation of traditional ideas and mores.  When Bawer immerses himself in the world of
academic victims’ studies conferences, he inevitably carries away some sense
that the fields in question carry some clout in higher education.  Do they?

He can point to instances in which the clout is undeniably real.  Chicano Studies is a force to be reckoned
with throughout the California State University system.  Cal State Northridge alone has “25 full-time
and 35 part-time professors” in Chicano Studies and “160-170 class sessions per
semester,” in support of a major, a double-major, a minor, and a master’s
degree program.  This contrasts (though
Bawer doesn’t say so) to the 12 full-time professors in the Physics and Astronomy
Department, the 17 full-time professors in Chemistry and Biochemistry, and the
20 in History.

  

A Need to Foreclose
Criticism and Debate

I have been of late immersed in a study of Bowdoin College, in
Maine.  Bowdoin is a small (1,778
students) liberal arts college that has programs in “Gender and Women’s
Studies,” “Africana Studies,” and “Gay and Lesbian Studies,” among other
things.  They are undeniably a prominent
part of Bowdoin’s academic landscape and they have grown substantially over the
years.  But trying to figure out how much
influence they have over the college as a whole is a matter for subtle
analysis.  Students at Bowdoin can,
without much effort, avoid taking courses in all of them.  Their influence is most visible in three
areas:  the eagerness of Bowdoin to draw
attention to them; the frequency with which the courses they originate are
cross-listed in other departments; and their seeming success in foreclosing
serious criticism.  The last is surely
the most important and the least calculable. 

For example, “Gender and Women’s Studies” proceeds on the premises that
so-called “gender” (as opposed to sex) is “socially constructed” and that
“patriarchy” is a key analytic category. 
In principle these are points that ought to be open to serious debate,
but there are no courses at Bowdoin, nor, as far as I can tell, visiting
lecturers or figures of any sort who undertake such debate.  The official college program grounded in
advocacy seems somehow to exclude serious institutional space for alternative
views.

What is true at Bowdoin is more or less true everywhere.  The power of the victims’ studies departments
lies not in what they say but in their ability to prevent inquiry that runs
against their preferred narratives.  They
need not go to a lot of trouble to make this happen.  They are more often like rocks in the
stream.  The regular flow of academic
life simply goes around them.  Few
faculty members or administrators want the hassle of getting in their way. 

Bawer’s book is as vivid an account of the history, the shifting
rationalizations, and the rhetoric of victims’ studies as we are ever likely to
have.  This owes something to his insider
status.  An openly gay man whose 1993
book, A Place at the Table, advanced
the cause for integration of gays into mainstream society, Bawer is deeply
sympathetic to academic work that emphasizes the history of groups who have
struggled against prejudice. Moreover, he has been a participant in some of the
key debates that shaped these fields. 
His chapter on how “gay studies” (“a serious academic discipline”) was
displaced by “queer studies” (a celebration of “oppositional relation to the
norm”) is the centerpiece of the book. 
He recounts his own disputes with queer theorists such as David
Halperin, who attack him for criticizing the late Michel Foucault, whose view
that sex is “socially 
constructed” is the founding principle of queer theory.


Everyone’s Villain:
The White Hetero Male

The richness of The Victims’
Revolution
lies in Bawer’s crystalline details and lucid exposition.  He takes the woozy idea of
“intersectionality” for example–the idea that various forms of oppression intersect
and amplify one another–and follows it through one conference paper after
another.  Black Lesbians know an
oppression that white Lesbians know not of, etc.  The reward of this is that we see how closely
interwoven the studies fields are with one another.  They have pretty much perfected their end run
around academic standards by declaring that their ideological premises are
“categories of analysis.”  This gives to
victims’ studies scholarship a quality of plug-and-play.  The subjects vary (dance, clothes-making,
stories by Henry James, memoir writing, honor killings in Pakistan) but the
analysis has a dreary sameness.  Someone
somewhere is being oppressed; someone is resisting.  Look hard enough and you find the Where’s
Waldo of all victims’ studies, the oppressor par excellence:  the heterosexual white male. 

Bawer ends his book with a chapter title “Is There Hope?” in which he
speaks eloquently of the humanities–those “irreplaceable” points of access to
great books and great ideas that the “victims’ studies revolution” has indeed
tried to replace.  The humanities are the
freedom “to think for oneself” and thus to preserve and advance human
civilization.  Bawer is aware that by
speaking like this he risks sounding like a vintage graduation speech, but it’s
a risk he braves because he thinks the danger of losing the humanities is
real:  “a perverse betrayal of a rich and
beautiful legacy.” 

But he does see some hope, first in those
college students who rebel against the new “orthodoxies;” second in the waning
power of words such as “bigot” and “racist” to intimidate academic
administrators; third, in the Internet giving students access to ideas beyond
the control of their doctrinaire teachers; and lastly in the handful of
humanists such as Alan Kors, Steve Balch, David Rothman, and David Clemens who
continue the fight for genuine intellectual freedom and high academic standards.  If any of those are unfamiliar names, read
the book.

Peter Wood

Peter Wood

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “Diversity: the Invention of a Concept.”

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