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.”
Then there is a whole discipline of men’s studies, taught at “about a hundred North American colleges and universities.” Bawer quotes Lionel Tiger, who calls men’s studies “‘a wholly owned branch of women’s studies,’ examining maleness through a feminist and social constructionist prism.” Or, as professor David Clemens of Monterey Peninsula College puts it, men’s studies is a “‘camouflage version of Women’s Studies’ in which the ‘operative question’ is, ‘Why are men so awful?’”
There is even whiteness studies. “Just as men’s studies isn’t really about maleness but patriarchal oppression, so whiteness studies isn’t really about whiteness but racial oppression.” Bawer quotes David Horowitz: “Black studies celebrates Blackness, Chicano studies celebrates Chicanos, Women’s studies celebrates women, and white studies attacks white people as evil.”
Then there is fat studies, “to a large extent, a sub-division of Women’s Studies.” At a National Women’s Studies Association meeting in Denver, he attends a session titled “Advancing Fat Feminism,” where one of the participants, a professor who describes herself as “a self-identified queer, fat, vegan,” waxes eloquent on the cow. She refuses to drink milk, not for vegan health reasons, but for feminist principles. “Dairy is a feminist issue. Milk comes from a grieving mother….no human can be free while other species are oppressed.”
But amid all this silliness, Bawer does see a ray of hope. He cites an article appearing in the Daily Beast, in which the author, discussing the rise of fat studies, seems to worry that “identity studies are becoming so far removed from any hint of academic or intellectual legitimacy that even teachers of more established and only moderately asinine disciplines are reacting to the far more extreme asininity of the newer ones.” Perhaps. And it may be that in the end, it’s just a matter of rediscovering some very simple and basic truths. Before diversity became the watchword, we called it the melting pot; E Pluribus Unum, not Ex Uno Plures, was the motto.
In his discussion of Chicano studies, which he characterizes as “a locus for Marxist propaganda”— “Briefly put: Castro and Chavez good; America evil”—he cites Francisco H. Vasquez, the editor of “a major anthology in the field,” who tries to explain why there’s a need for a discipline called Chicano studies, but “not, say, a German-American or an Italian-American Studies.” Says Vasquez: “[T]he U.S. Italian, Irish, and German populations…have in due time become accepted as ‘real’ Americans. They do not need their own ethnic studies at the university.” “
It doesn’t seem to occur to Vasquez,” writes Bawer, “that one reason why those groups have been so successfully integrated is that they didn’t have ‘their own ethnic studies at the university.’ Italian, Irish and German Americans…studied what everybody else studied. They didn’t go to college to be ‘taught’ about the one thing you could be sure they knew something about.…They went to college to learn about things beyond their own experience and to do something useful with that knowledge.”
Bawer sums it up:
We stand on….the shoulders of pioneers and soldiers, entrepreneurs and inventors, factory laborers and farmers, who…transformed a wilderness continent into the freest, most dynamic, and most prosperous nation in the history of the human race [so that] by the late twentieth century virtually every young person in America had the opportunity to acquire a real higher education.…
[T]his noblest of goals was met in America before it was met anywhere else. And it is why the replacement of a true education…by identity studies is a betrayal, in the profoundest sense, of the promise of America.
Photo © Jorge Royan
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