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The poisonousness of identity studies.
The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the
Closing of the Liberal Mind
By Bruce Bawer
(Broadside Books, 378 pages, $25.99)
As college and university tuitions rise stratospherically, reaching levels that equal the annual earnings of a working family, economically stressed parents are expected to continue to foot the bills for what is an increasingly deficient product—an education too often consisting of courses taught by con men, perverts, misfits, masters of gibberish, and malcontents who hate our country, our society, and the institutions that reward them handsomely for minimal effort.
And for those students sufficiently naïve to be influenced, the results can be educations that equip them to do nothing. Rather than being taught to think, they’re taught to express grievances. Instead of being exposed to the best that’s been thought and said, they’re taught that all we treasure as a society—our whole system of values—is based on racism, sexism, imperialism, or any number of a huge subset of -isms.
How pervasive are these programs on individual campuses? Are they an integral part of the curricula? Or are they fringe offerings, primarily a form of tribute paid by the nervous politically correct managers who run the institutions to appease various militant groups and governmental bureaucratic educationists enforcing the unspoken quota systems that carry with them federal funding?
As our economy tightens, as people retrench and the theme becomes back-to-basics, they’re taking a hard look at the luxuries in which we’ve been indulging. This reexamination is happening across the board and includes the extraordinary and insufficiently explained expenses associated with higher education, as our colleges and universities, among them some of the most prestigious, increasingly charge more for less.
Bruce Bawer, author of While Europe Slept, a hard-eyed examination of the Islamic fundamentalism that feasts on the soft underbelly of European welfare states, turns that hard eye on our centers of higher learning and the identity politics that since the great fl ourishing of the New Left in the ’60s and ’70s, have come, like cuckoos, to push the old liberal arts curricula out of the academic nests and replace them with victim-centric programs like black studies, women’s studies, Chicano studies, and a proliferation of sub-studies.
Bawer devotes four chapters to the primary identity areas, as well as a separate chapter to sub-studies. He builds each chapter by reading extensively the frequently semi-literate and jargonistic books, papers, and journals issued by the various identity groups; attending their meetings, conferences, and seminars here and in Europe; interviewing people involved with the groups and their critics; and through it all, for the most part, resisting the impulse to satirize and caricature, allowing the words and actions of the people involved to carry the message.
In his chapter on black studies, Bawer talks with Shelby Steele, now a fellow at the Hoover Institution, whose 1991 book The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America won the National Book Critics Award. “I was one of those who were in on the founding of black studies programs,” he tells Bawer, although he later came to believe that to be taken seriously, black subjects had to be offered by established departments. He believes African American literature, for instance, to be “a full, rich subject…but it had to be taught under the auspices of an English department, where the formal conventions of criticism were applied rigorously.”
In the early days, however, he tells Bawer, many of his fellow black studies advocates couldn’t care less about academic legitimacy, but rather wanted the power and money that autonomous departments would give them—power that guilty white academics were eager to confer. As Steele puts it, “We’d talk to the administrators, and talk them into having black studies programs…there was so much white guilt that you could just go into these places and they’d give you everything you wanted.…It was just a joke from the very beginning.”
He tells Bawer that he also became aware that “Black Studies attracted ‘obvious hustlers,’” not real educators. The proliferation of black studies programs in the 1970s, says Steele, provided “an avenue for minorities to gain the economic security of the university professorship.They had no real credentials, so their argument became ‘You have to hire me to do this because I’m black.’ So your blackness itself became your primary credential.”
Bawer discusses the development of the black studies/Black Power movement, with examples of the twists and turns of the dialectics of blackness and profi les of the most successful hustlers, among them Cornel West, who left his splendid sinecure at Harvard in a huff when the politically incorrect Larry Summers, who apparently didn’t get the diversity memo, called him on the carpet for giving easy grades and passing off rapping as a scholarly activity.
Among others still running their cons is Leonard Jeffries, who, despite his highly publicized antiwhite and anti-Semitic rants and nonsensical distinctions between “sun people” and “ice people,” is still a professor at the City College of New York, where he previously ran the black studies program. Another identity professor is Ron Karenga, who ran the black studies program at California State University-Long Beach and authored Introduction to Black Studies, considered the class of the field.
Among other things, Karenga asserts that when Columbus landed in America, “he found Blacks had already preceded him.” He also “claims for modern blacks not only the legacy of ancient Egypt but also that of Muhammad’s Muslim empire.” (Needless to say, this is not a popular view in Egypt and the Middle East.) “The Moorish empire in Spain represents not only a golden age in Islamic civilization,” Karenga wrote, “but also a golden age of civilization for Africa, Europe and ultimately the world.”
Few Europeans would accept Karenga’s view. Nor is it universally popular among other identity groups in which the celebration of Islamic civilization is muted. And in women’s studies, it can cause vituperative arguments about how to apply fashion-able “feminist post-colonial theory” to patriarchal countries where women are forced to cover themselves with unsightly black bags, denied the simplest of freedoms such as driving a car, and can be stoned to death for imagined breaches of decorum.
IN OTHER IDENTITY areas there are interesting intersections. There are PhD programs in disability studies, for instance, and presentations on the subject “are increasingly common at a range of identity studies gatherings.” At times, disability studies overlaps with queer studies. Bawer, who is himself gay, attends one such conference, where on a panel on “Queer Body Politics,” a presenter, speaking of similarities between “crips,” as she calls them, and “queers,” asks the question: “Are crip bodies queer bodies, and can we say that queer bodies are crip bodies?” In the course of her presentation, she singles out Queers on Wheels, an organization for gays in wheelchairs, which “tries an intervention in the hegemonic way of seeing from bodily difference.”
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