Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Reactionaries Take Over Academia and Call Themselves Progressives

Someday (soon?), someone will write a classic book about the decline of Western academia in the contemporary age. On the surface, of course, its apologists aver that all is well in the era of “diversity” and “political correctness.”

Note the problem with these concepts when they collide with Enlightenment thinking, science, liberalism, and democracy.

Once upon a time, in the bad old days, people were hired because they were of the “right” gender, race, political doctrine, or religious belief.

Then came a brief transition period in which a serious, conscious attempt was made to be fair to everyone and to hire people based on qualification, leaning over backwards a little bit to even things out.

Now we are in a brave new world in which people are hired because…they are of the “right” gender, race, political doctrine, or religious belief.

In one respect, the situation has improved, given the wider distribution of the opportunity to attain knowledge and credentials. But ironically, that should mean it is “safe” to hire on the basis of merit isn’t it? Decades ago, for example, women or various minority groups didn’t have the same chance to get the needed basis for getting hired. So if today these are obtainable on a reasonably equal basis why does anyone have to differentiate based on the category people belong to?

That's what we used to call, not really so long ago, "racism." If someone were to say today: "I have a dream that my children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," that person might be in serious trouble in that respect, even if he was Martin Luther King.

But “diversity” has come to mean that it is more important to show the proper percentages represented by different groups than to have the most qualified people who can do the best job. Oh, and in lots of fields no matter how "diverse" these people might appear, inside their heads they have a startlingly homogeneous world view.

Diversity is only skin-deep.

Political correctness also poses a problem for the Enlightenment liberal view since if something is politically correct that means something else is politically incorrect and thus to be officially censored and cast out. In short, that means making an a priori judgment about what is thought crime.

To paraphrase George Orwell's anti-utopian novel 1984, to say, "I hate Big Brother" is a hate crime.

This article is prompted by a letter from a friend who is perhaps the single most qualified person in the world to be hired for a specific academic post (I can’t give you the details but if I could I promise you’d be convinced of that statement) but was rejected for that job.

On what grounds? Looking at his writing he was told that the sources he uses are “discredited.” We are not talking here about scholars who faked their doctorates or committed plagiarism, but about recognized experts whose views are not in favor with those in power. Clearly, this is a rationale I’ve never heard being used before in an academic setting.

But it reminds me of something I saw a few months ago. A professor who chaired a certain history department had died and one of his colleagues wrote an admiring obituary on a list read by historians. One of the praiseworthy things presented enthusiastically—and totally openly—was that the late professor had ensured all the members of his department were Marxists.

It was one thing to do it, quite a more frightening prospect to brag about it in front of hundreds of scholars without any fear such an admission would cause a problem.

A graduate student told me about how he became politicized. Going to see the famous head of his department at a famous university, he presented the topic he had chosen for his doctorate: Radical Islamist thought. The much-honored and media-celebrated professor told him that the idea of radical Islamist thought was a Zionist reactionary invention and there would be no dissertations written about it as long as he was chair.

Ah, diversity.

I could present some of my own experiences but they don’t include anything recent in regard to academic departments. That’s because the one time I seriously did apply for a university job in the United States was thirty years ago. At the time, I had taken no political stances in academia and not written anything the least bit controversial. But of course my name is Jewish. One of the interviewers screamed at me—though nothing regarding this issue had come up previously in the conversation—“How do you possibly expect to fairly present the Palestinian people’s narrative!” And that wasn’t a question.

My experiences in recent years have been more involved with publishing. I won’t use the name of the two university presses but they are both Ivy League ones.

At the first, a project was going fine until suddenly rejected in a routine meeting. When I asked what had happened, my source who had been there told me: “Someone said that we can’t have an Israeli writing about Arab politics.”

At the second, I was commissioned to do a book—their idea, not mine—which had been completed. The readers had raised some issues which had been simple to handle. I had a letter from the editor that the readers’ points had been fully addressed and the revised manuscript accepted by the editorial board.

Suddenly and at the last minute, the book was rejected by the advisory board whose head—obviously uncomfortable with being forced into this unprofessional and immoral behavior by the veto of a radical member of his board—nervously told me that they couldn’t publish the book.

Asked I, Why not? The answer: "You didn’t do what the readers asked."

"But," my response was, "I have a letter from your own editor saying I did. Tell you what," I offered, "let’s send it back to the readers and see what they think. If they have any objections more changes can be made."

"No!" He said. Can’t be done. Keep the money and bye! Click!

That same once-proud publisher, not much later, did a book by someone with no serious qualifications claiming that Zionism is a mental illness.

[A digression: About a year ago at a dinner with an esteemed and brilliant colleague, an interesting question suddenly occurred to me. "Can you think," I asked, of any really good book on the Middle East--at least in history, political science, or international relations--written by one of the hegemonic Edward Said radical crowd in the last quarter-century? I mean, there are hundreds of these people, haven't they produced something good." I'm not talking about something theoretical or ideological--explaining why America and Israel are evil for the ten thousandth time--but a good basic scholarly work, say a modern history of Egypt or Arab nationalism or a biography. Let me know if you come up with something.]

So clearly, as groups like Campus Watch have documented—merely by daring to quote the wacky things radical professors have said or written, the nerve!--and as thousands of people know from personal experience, there’s something very seriously wrong with a lot of departments in a lot of universities today. Yet the very people who are supposedly fearless investigators of every aspect of knowledge are keeping mum about it.

No problem in these hallowed halls of academic freedom.

Remember when every student at respected universities had to take a year-long course in Western civilization? Once they finished reading the classics--yes, they deserve that designation--starting with the ancient Greeks and, yes, including Karl Marx, they had some idea of how Western civilization was built up, the values it held, and its remarkable ability to reform and improve itself.

Now, to paraphrase the neo-fascist car maker Henry Ford, they are taught that Western civilization is bunk or in the words of the neo-fascist poet Ezra Pound, merely, "an old bitch gone in the teeth...a botched civilization...."

Notice what these two men had in common politically? Interesting who the contemporary academic left has chosen to channel.

(I just realized that Ford and Pound had something else in common, antisemitism. In those days, irony of ironies, the Jews had come to represent Enlightenment liberalism to the reactionaries. This doesn't get in the way so much today since those self-consciously identified Jews represent reactionary views to the anti-liberals who pretend otherwise.)

But here’s a final true story about “diversity.” When a professor at an eastern university suggested to colleagues that there was more need for real balance in the classroom here is what a colleague replied:

“Your idea is old fashioned and boring. Let me tell you how I teach my course on international environmental issues. In the first class I tell the students that the United States is the main cause of international environmental problems. And in the rest of the classes I prove it.”

Oh brave new world that has such people in it!

And what an intellectually impoverished society that has such people shaping young minds in it!

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