When Howard Dean hit New York several weeks ago, he made two stunning but characteristic comments. Speaking with fervor at the final D.N.C. forum prior to his election as party chairman, he explained to the assembled flock that he didn’t just disagree with Republicans on specific issues, but rather that “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for.” If the Democrats are to combat this elephantine evil, he went on, “we cannot change our faith.”
Back in the fall of 2003, when Dr. Dean was still riding high in the Presidential primary, I’d listened in on a conversation among undergraduate Deaniacs outside my office at Cooper Union in the East Village. “This just doesn’t feel like America any more,” one of them said to a friend, who replied, “Fuck Bush,” and pointed to a button on his jacket bearing the same slogan.
It’s an old professor’s habit, but I had to engage them. “What does that mean?” I asked the fellow with the button. “Bush is bullshit,” he replied, “the most evil man in the world.” When I said that wasn’t an argument and pressed him, he acknowledged that “Saddam isn’t a good guy,” but “who are we”-he pointed both to me and his like-minded friend-to “judge Saddam Hussein?”
“Why not?” I asked. He replied with an answer right out of the postmodern playbook. Americans can’t judge another culture, he insisted, because there is no common morality. But if that’s the case, I asked, why then was George Bush “undoubtedly the most evil man in the world?” He seemed puzzled by the idea that his version of an emotional truth might seem incoherent to others.
Like the fascist writers of the 1930’s from whom their postmodern teachers had drawn their ideas, these Deaniacs were both engaged in politics and deeply cynical about democracy, which they saw as a game manipulated by nefarious forces led by Fox News. As they see it, there is little to argue; the only question is “which side are you on?” Doubtful that informed debate could settle much, they hoped to impose their will on a backward country that wickedly refused to see the appeal of a “Fuck Bush” platform.
I was taken aback by my conversation with the Deaniacs; their sheer coarseness stunned me. Even at the height of the “Ronald Reagan is going to blow up the world” mania of the 1980’s, I had never seen a “Fuck Reagan” button. But the coarseness was consistent with the dominant mood in academia outside of the sciences.
Recently, the professoriat has been embarrassed by a series of dustups exposing the irrationalist underside of academic life. After Hamilton College invited a former Brinks holdup terrorist to take a faculty position, it compounded its problems by asking “Indian” poseur Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado to speak, only to back off when he was found to have delivered a rant about how the people killed in the World Trade Center were “little Eichmanns.” Columbia’s alumni, if not its administration, has been discomfited by the ravings of Joseph Massad, a professor so extreme in his support of Palestinian terrorism as to have labeled Yasir Arafat a collaborator with Israel. Harvard president Larry Summers has been forced to don the sackcloth and ashes after he commented reasonably that the differences between men and women might-and his stress, the transcript shows, was on might- be one part of the reason why there are fewer females in the sciences.
The common response to these embarrassments has been either to defend them as free-speech exercises or as petty conflicts confined to the parallel universe of our campus Brigadoons. Both reactions are somewhat disingenuous, but the latter response is particularly problematic for the future of the Democratic Party.
The Democrats and the academy have been deeply intertwined ever since Franklin Roosevelt drew on Columbia faculty to staff his brain trust. In 1961, John F. Kennedy turned to Harvard for similar talent. But the relationship, although it continued to be tight, turned negative in the 1960’s, when campus extremism undermined the popular appeal of the “party of the people,” and the relationship has stayed negative ever since.
As academia turned to political activism, think tanks took over its role as the main source of policy ideas for new, generally Republican, administrations. In this last election, academia contributed little in the way of usable ideas, though it was a major source of Democratic Party funding.
“While Republicans were commandeering the nation’s political apparatus,” noted historian Richard Wolin, the theorists of a postmodern left, cuckolded by history, were conquering academia. Their victory has come at a high cost. Once a forward-looking hothouse for discussion and debate, academia, taken as a whole, has been increasingly dominated by freeze-dried 1960’s radicals and their intellectual progeny, who have turned much of the humanities and social sciences into a backwater.
In 1989, when Eastern Europeans were reclaiming the ideals of human rights and political freedom, students and faculty on the Stanford campus were marching with 1988 Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson shouting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Culture’s got to go.” Up the road, Berkeley-a city, dominated by the university, which conducts its own foreign policy-announced it was adopting Jena in Communist East Germany as a sister city, this just a few months before the Berlin Wall fell.
But then again, academia has been getting it wrong over and over again. Criminologists, as a group, were convinced that crime couldn’t be cut; sociologists were sure that welfare reform couldn’t work because it didn’t go to the root causes of poverty; and Sovietologists were certain that the USSR of the 1980’s had matured into a successful, even pluralistic society. As for radical Islam, the consensus view of the Middle Eastern Studies Association was that the danger to America came from a “terror industry” which conjured imagined threats in order to justify American aggression.
But even as academia’s batting average has declined, its claim to superior knowledge has expanded. The old ideal of disinterested scholarship, or at least the importance of attempting to be objective, has been displaced. In 2003, the University of California’s Academic Assembly did away with the distinction between “interested” and “disinterested” scholarship by a 45-3 vote. As Berkeley law professor Robert Post explained, “The old statement of principles was so outlandishly disconnected to what university teaching is now that it made no sense to think about it that way.”
The reality, as Professor Post recognized, is that many professors now literally profess. Far from teaching the mechanics of knowledge, they are in fact preachers of sorts, spreading a gospel akin to that of Howard Dean. And if they are part of grievance-studies departments, like Ward Churchill or Joseph Massad, there never was any expectation of objectivity: They were knowingly hired as activists and are now puzzled as to why this has become a problem for some of their students and the larger public. After all, what they preach is built into the very orientation students are given when they arrive on campus. New students at many schools are quite literally given a new faith in which the world is divided into victims and victimizers, with little room for common ideals of citizenship or rationality, and no basis for debates that approximate the give-and-take of politics.
This appeal to tribalism was nearly summed in a popular T-shirt of the mid-1990’s. It read in large print: “If you’re not black, you wouldn’t understand.”
The effect of victims-studies departments, in which intellectual standards are ignored-the personalization of the political by way of feminism, and the epistemological nihilism of postmodernism-has cut much of academia off from its lifeblood of free and open debate. Like the Deaniacs, who wrote off the success of the Iraqi elections, they never need to refine their arguments in light of new evidence, since criticism can be written off as “Republican,” or “racist,” or “sexist,” or “Islamophobic,” or just plain “bullshit.”
It has gotten so bad that philosophers at a prestigious university have asked to be detached from the humanities department because the English and history departments are so mired in subjectivity that faculty members in the same department can barely speak with each other, let alone across disciplines.
Postmodernism is the Indian rope trick of academia; it’s an intellectual illusion that collapses before even slightly skeptical scrutiny. The postmodern game consists of an insistence that objective judgments are impossible, since all knowledge is riddled with prejudice, power considerations, ethnocentric assumptions and so on. The trick is that these prejudices infect only those who differ from the (almost always left-wing) positions of the professors. Its triumph on campus after campus-where the tenure system ensures that only like-minded scholars are accepted and deters those with different ideas from even considering the academy as a career choice-means that the postmodern academy speaks largely to itself and its offspring. In the absence of truth, there’s little reason to try and persuade people. Instead, performance replaces plausibility and persuasion as the coin of academic success, giving rise to percussive performers like Ward Churchill and Joseph Massad.
In the absence of intellectual competition-other than the disputes between left and lefter-academia will continue to get it wrong over and over again. This might be of limited concern were it not for the fact that the sheltered students who emerge from this one-party state are left bereft of any means of negotiating with political reality once they engage in politics as adults.
Students left uninformed by a high-school education largely bereft of U.S. history arrive at college, where, instead of being given the background knowledge of American institutions they need to make judgments as citizens, they are fed attitudes and theories that can be made to fit with isolated fact taken out of context. This academic alchemy specializes in trying to turn Third World thugs like Yasir Arafat and Saddam Hussein into vanguards of virtue.
Credulous undergraduates fall prey to priestly performers who claim to be initiating them into the subterranean mysteries of postmodern theory. It’s an appealing brew, a short cut to supposedly subversive and hence superior insights into the world without ever knowing much about it. A postmodernist recently told me that the Third World is backward because it had failed to follow the path set out by Franz Fanon, in which the opposed “others” of the world would claim the future by inflicting violence on their First World oppressors and native allies.
Had this man never heard of Pol Pot or Yasir Arafat or Robert Mugabe? Those who buy into this worldview-many of whom are future Democratic Party activists-are left both insufferably pretentious and substantively silly.
This doesn’t speak to whether the acadeaniacs and Deaniacs were right or wrong about Iraq, but it does explain why they’re unable to give coherent reasons for their views. Instead, when pushed, they fall back on their angry emotions or crackpot conspiracy theories. The idea that George Bush invaded Iraq to help the Saudis, who are ferociously opposed to a Shia-dominated state on their northern border, will be persuasive only to people of the Deaniac faith.
“No Blood for Oil” was a facile slogan in 1991, but simply bizarre in 2003. My son saw a “U.S. out of the United States” sign in Union Square on the night of Sept. 11, 2001. What makes all this worse is that when the acadeaniacs graduate, they tend to sort themselves into places where only the like-minded are likely to have settled, furthering their isolation them from the life of the country.
If the Democratic Party comes to be dominated by angry ill-informed activists who believe that George Bush is more evil than Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden, it will have a bleak future. It’s time for Democrats, if only out of their own self-interest, to start paying attention to the tragic decline of our college and universities. If they don’t, the party’s future will be in the hands of the acadeaniacs.