. . . How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others … but again, truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror….
—V, V for Vendetta (2005)
This, from Reagan-era economist (later: political-economic journalist) Paul Craig Roberts has been circulating. I’ve received links to it, or online republications of it, three times over the past week.
I’ve no doubt of what the mainstream reaction to it would be … if anyone in those arenas read it and saw fit to respond at all.
I also encountered this just two days ago as I write, penned by a fellow philosopher, Steven Gerrard of Williams College, one of the ones who stuck around in academia (maybe that will change).
What happened: he’d observed how the assault on free speech has been accelerating since around 2014, the year Black Lives Matter was created. This assault had accelerated since the Trump election, including at his own institution. He decided to put together a course on freedom of speech. He taught the course, apparently without incident. As any philosophy course should, it allowed multiple perspectives ranging from John Stuart Mill’s classic defense of free speech and freedom of inquiry in his On Liberty to those of identity politics.
Just short of a year ago he was presenting a pledge signed by a number of faculty at his institution defending free expression. He had been assuming that considerations such as those he had raised were making a difference. I’ll let him tell what happened next:
Then reality hit.
As I stepped up to the lectern in one of the college’s elegant Federal-style halls, students marched into the room, bearing a letter naming me an “Enemy of the People.”
In the spirit of liberal openness, I read their letter aloud. This is what it said: “‘Free Speech,’ as a term, has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.” The letter reserved special scorn for liberalism: “Liberal ideology asserts that morality is logical — that dehumanizing ideas can be fixed with logic and therefore need to be debated.” But, it added, “dehumanization cannot be discussed away.”
The letter finished, I started to reply. But a group of younger faculty in the front row demanded that I be quiet and let the students speak. And the students did. They had almost nothing to say about free speech; instead, they testified to the indignities they suffered at Williams. The dean of the college, who was in attendance, praised the students for their passion.
And so began Williams College’s annus horribilis, a year marked by protests, marches, threats and demands — everything but rational argument. A significant number of faculty not only supported this, but also instigated it. And the administration? Its response was to appoint a committee consisting of faculty, staff and students. Since “free speech” was now a dirty phrase, it was called “the Ad Hoc Committee on Inquiry and Inclusion.”
The year pretty much went downhill from there.
He went on to describe what is happening as an evolutionary-type process, about to result in what he calls the comfort college:
At Williams College’s bicentennial in 1993, Frederick Rudolph, a beloved and esteemed professor of history at the school, gave a speech in which he defined the three eras of his and other elite colleges: the Christian college, the gentlemen’s college and the consumer’s college. Rudolph predicted that the consumer Williams “will be moving on, making way for the as yet undefined next era in the college’s history.”
Elite private education in America is on the cusp of this new era. The controversies over free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions and the like are symptoms of this shift. They are currently considered controversies because the colleges are in transition, and many do not realize that the old standards no longer hold. Once the transition is complete, the “correct” side of the controversies will become central to a school’s identity — just as faith was to the Christian college, self-confidence was to the gentlemen’s college, and alumni devotion and achievement were to the consumer’s college.
Some have suggested naming this new college “the therapeutic university” or “the woke college.” I prefer “the comfort college,” because it combines the emotional component of the first with the political elements of the second. Our students are comfortable in their opinions but uncomfortable with their lives, finding their world and the Williams campus a threatening place. Once Williams’ transition to comfort college is complete, the students will expect to find their college truly comfortable in all respects….
….What characterizes the comfort college? The slogan of the comfort college is “diversity and inclusion.” And just to be clear: The presence of previously underrepresented groups is vital, necessary and welcome. What’s more, insensitivity toward people’s identities should be self-censored, and social pressure to do so is a helpful tool.
The comfort college? One wonders how anything resembling education that would have been understood as such even 30 years ago could occur there.
Here’s the bottom line: identity politics dominates the major academic departments in liberal arts in the Ivy Leagues and other high-prestige institutions. Where those institutions go, the rest follow (except, perhaps, for glorified technical schools).
It dominates the major journals in those fields, where aspiring academics must publish if they expect ever to obtain tenure. (And even if they do, there are no guarantees.)
Identity politics dominates corporate media, which is a major reason guys like Roberts have all been kicked out and cannot be syndicated except on a handful of alternative sites. It has a strong presence in Big Tech, forming a core part of the behavioral guidelines being imposed on users which I discussed elsewhere last week.
As is evident from the above, administrators are completely cowed. Those not infected with the identity politics virus are infected with the neoliberal one. Neoliberalism may be thought of as a brand of corporatist capitalism married to materialism, what some call the “business model” academic institutions began to embrace in the 1980s and even more so in the 1990s and 2000s.
Neoliberal ideology promotes a corporate mindset, and the commodification of everything it touches. Its effect on colleges and universities explains why institutions have millions to spend on plush new buildings, high tech facilities, gymnasiums, sports arenas, etc., but choose to pay adjunct faculty starvation wages.
While different from identity politics, neoliberalism has no fundamental quarrel with it. Identity politics, having largely destroyed traditional intellectual / philosophical inquiry and liberal arts learning, keeps the latter from challenging its own premises in academic political economy, and in society more generally. This is because neoliberals have no interest in saving liberal arts learning. They have no interest in anything that does not bring about an immediate material profit. Control over markets by corporations is easily portrayed as “market forces.” The language is everything.
And if that’s what capitalism is, then isn’t it small wonder why millennials are turning to socialism in droves?!
Many millennials are drowning in debt, after all, having attended those institutions in good faith. Some will be repaying student loan debt their entire working lives, and then some. (These, incidentally, include students with degrees in the sciences. Not by a long shot does everyone who goes to a university major in “gender studies” or some other such foolishness.)
Unless they default that is. Defaults on student loan debts are at all time highs. Some millennials will go to their graves owing money for student loans — always assuming the present system lasts that long (it probably will not).
Student loan debt has risen to over $1.6 trillion, and like the national debt (over $22.5 trillion), it is going up with no end in sight.
The academic / higher educational system in the U.S. is broken beyond repair. Even if we have talked about neoliberalism, arguably identity politics is the bigger culprit in bringing about this disaster.
Or is it?
Maybe there is a still bigger culprit. That being the indifference, or unwillingness to act, of those who were warned long ago that this was coming and did nothing.
I know for a fact that what Gerrard calls the comfort university could have been foreseen, because it was foreseen. By me. And by well over a dozen other writers who became aware of what was going on as early as 1990.
While in-depth discussions of the merits versus demerits of affirmative action programs go back to their origins in the 1960s, philosopher Nicholas Capaldi was the first to fully break ranks from academic niceties and note that such policies were changing, at a fundamental level, the legal structure of higher education and of the country. His book was entitled Out of Order: Affirmative Action and the Crisis of Doctrinaire Liberalism (1985).
Sociologist Frederick R. Lynch then penned Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action (1989). He made a strong case that reverse discrimination had become a real phenomenon, because the law essentially required it. Why was this?
The Supreme Court’s decision in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) had shifted criteria for establishing discrimination from that of a provable action on the part of an employer to a lack of statistical balance. It shifted the emphasis from equality of opportunity (which everyone I knew supported) to equality of outcomes, which no existing policy could guarantee.
There are no means of focusing on outcomes without offering privileges to some at the expense of others, all the chatter about “white privilege” notwithstanding.
Additional writers showed how such criteria were leading to the hiring of people who had transformed their academic positions into launching pads for political activism. A good example is Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (orig. 1990).
Around this time, the phrase political correctness began to creep into the public lexicon. Used originally by Leninists for those who towed the party line too closely, it began to be used for efforts to shut down criticisms of affirmative action on campuses, and for the “new scholarship” (I was then calling it) that was growing up to justify such policies, increasingly pulled under related rubrics like diversity, inclusion, etc., because the phrase affirmative action was getting a bad name.
This “new scholarship” drew heavily on French thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and others, who contended — essentially (I’ve limited space and no interest here in crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s) — that there was no such thing as objective truth, or rationality, or bias-free inquiry.
Everyone is situated historically, culturally, ethnically, etc.; so everything is political. The personal is the political, radical “second wave” feminists began saying.
Truth claims are concealed assertions of the dominant group. Never mind that sometimes they can be; but sometimes not!
Truth is, for this kind of mind, a straight white Christian male “social construct.”
We should all know these incantations by now.
Almost no one noticed the paradox in saying there’s no objective truth. If you assert there’s no objective truth, then your own statement isn’t objectively true. You cannot argue rationally and consistently that no line of reasoning can reach a conclusion by rational means, whether historically situated or not. It is the logical equivalent of sawing off the tree branch you are sitting on.
Such observations sailed over nearly everyone’s heads, which is why almost no one was interested in them.
Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (orig. 1991) documented the effects of the new politics mainly on six campuses, but noted how political correctness was spreading. Love him or not (and I know of conservatives who, strangely, hate his guts), D’Souza’s book was a landmark exposition of what was going on.
If you were anywhere near a major campus at the time, you had to be blind to have missed it!
My Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action came out in 1994 (it had been rejected by around 80 publishers). As a trained philosopher, I saw it as my obligation to outline the philosophical premises behind the new academic politics. I showed how affirmative action programs had given this politics life and empowered it, beyond the (sometimes mis)readings of the French thinkers.
My book went further than anyone else’s had, but it still wasn’t far enough.
The following year saw the appearance of Christina Hoff Sommers’s Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women (1995) working out the details of how a movement that had once sought justice for women in the workplace (“equity feminism”) had undergone a radical transformation, falling into the hands of “scholars” influenced by those French thinkers. What resulted was the idea that knowledge was “gendered” (“gender feminism”), with “gender” to be differentiated from sex. The latter is biological, and pretty much uninteresting. The former is, again, a “social construct.” This was intended to imply it was arbitrary and could be changed.
Then came the infamous Alan Sokal hoax, whereby a physicist purposefully penned an article of utter gibberish that nevertheless pandered to the political biases of the day, and it was accepted for publication in the lead journal of the “new scholarship,” Social Text. Sokal went public immediately following the article’s appearance.
This should have proved to any rational minds left that the “new scholarship” was mostly rubbish, and that academia was in serious trouble.
Despite the embarrassment, for the most part the revelation fell on deaf ears. It presumed a culture in which truth still mattered, or was believed to exist and be discoverable by rational minds.
The revelatory books kept appearing throughout the rest of the 1990s: too numerous to continue enumerating individually. Some emphasized the growing number of campus horror stories: speakers shut down; students verbally attacked for some “insensitive remark,” often to the point of needing to transfer to another school to escape the attacks; faculty members either demoted or summarily fired, or if they had tenure, their lives being made so miserable that they left their institutions on their own. (I documented instances of all these in my Civil Wrongs.)
All this was before 2000!
Can anyone in his right mind say they weren’t warned?????
There were groups organized out of supposed concern to oppose these trends and defend traditional scholarship and its ideals. Among the most visible was the National Association of Scholars, organized in 1989.
I joined at the earliest opportunity.
The NAS published newsletters and a fairly decent journal, Academic Questions. They held an annual conference, with presentations. Overall, their activities were not unlike those any other group of career academics.
By the time my book appeared, one thing was clear: this wasn’t going to be enough. A massive public effort to seize the moral high ground from the cultural left was going to be necessary. And the process was sufficiently far along that the longer we waited, the worse the situation would get until reversal was no longer possible. (I would say now that we have reached that point.)
I offered my services as a philosopher more than qualified to highlight the cultural left’s premises, trace them to philosophers such as G.W.F. Hegel at one end, outline their real world consequences at the other, and begin working with anyone who would work with me to organize a strategy of refutation. The situation was already worsening. It was reaching the point where, e.g., any criticism whatsoever of a black person or of black groups seeking special favors (e.g., their own dormitories) constituted racism, to be confronted as “hate speech.”
Almost never were such terms given clear definitions.
I was the obvious person to point out, on solid philosophical grounds, that if you don’t define your terms, everything is eventually up for the grabs of those who can shout the loudest and swing the biggest verbal clubs.
The major twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once defined philosophy as a “battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”
It has become a battle against those who would weaponize language in order to secure and maintain policy dominance.
For NAS I’d submitted a book review, proposed an article, and offered my services as a speaker to begin presenting these ideas at their meetings, arguing how we are seeing a clash between fundamentally different worldviews and values systems. I was prepared to argue that philosophical premises are important to this struggle — which would not be won without challenging the cultural left’s premises at that level.
To my great dismay, the NAS leadership wasn’t interested. Like the majority of academic organizations assembled by groups of colleagues who knew each other, they’d formed what was essentially a closed club where “outsiders” (it helped to have Ivy League credentials!) were unwelcome.
Or such was my impression, when offers met with no response. This is the main drawback of these kinds of organizations, which proceed to shoot themselves in the foot because they are unwilling to make use of the resources available to them.
(In fairness, and for completeness’ sake, I was later interviewed for what would have been a glorified paper-shuffling job at a university out in “flyover country,” i.e., well away from everyone and everything. Being “benched” was not what I had in mind, either.)
And so here we are today, with institutions turned into war zones, where not just conservatives but liberals who hesitate over the contemporary radicalism have been driven from their positions.
For example, Bret Weinstein, a biology professor who self-identifies as a progressive, was driven from Evergreen State University in an infamous case in 2017 when he criticized the reversal of a traditional “day of absence” during which black students stayed off campus. The plan in motion was to have, instead, a day without white people.
Weinstein was critical of the neo-segregationism implied in what was happening at his institution.
Confronted by angry leftist students who called him a racist, and in light of the fact that the administration had ordered campus police to stand down (!), Weinstein abandoned the campus out of fear for his safety. He held his final classes that semester off campus in a public park.
He resigned his position, along with his wife who also taught biology at Evergreen State. He filed a $3.8 million lawsuit against the school, settled for $500,000, but remains — to the best of my knowledge — a professional scholar in exile.
So here we are, with 2018-19 behind us, going into 2019-20, with attacks on freedom of speech still continuing, directed not just at known conservatives but any and all free speech advocates whatever their worldview or ideology (Weinstein had supported Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders).
Here we are, with white Americans being the one ethnic group whose population is actually shrinking relative to the whole, as Paul Craig Roberts is almost alone in having noted. Whites are the one ethnic group on which it is open season: on college and university campuses and in mainstream mass media (unless they are gay or transgendered).
Their only defenders are on alternative media.
Republican organizations able to mount defenses of these people are scared to death of being labeled racists, or (the current demon moniker), white supremacists.
Here we are, with rural white populations actually shrinking, actual victims of a variety of additional changes no one I know of ever voted for, e.g., the outsourcing of the country’s manufacturing base during the 1990s so that global corporations could get richer from cheap labor (NAFTA, GATT II, etc.), and automation.
Suicide rates among this population are much higher than in other groups.
Here we are, going into Fall 2019. Trump is still president, despite an extensive effort to lay the groundwork for removing him from office, via the official Russiagate conspiracy theory no one calls that.
To reduce the matter to one sentence, Trump is where he is because the mainstreams of both major parties collapsed. Their narratives had lost credibility. The Republican base was tired of Bushes and foreign wars. Nor did all progressives identify with Hillary Clinton, especially with the obvious theft of the 2016 nomination for her by the DNC. She wasn’t going to get the “swing state” vote after she dismissed voters in those crucial states as “baskets of deplorables” in one of the stupidest verbal blunders I ever saw a presidential candidate make. Those states had gone to Barack Obama four years before.
Trump is there because to many of those now relegated to outsider status in the “new America” of identity politics, he represented a kind of plain-speaking stand-in for everything his white followers saw as opposed to this agenda, as well as to the economic forces (part and parcel with neoliberalism) that had destroyed their lives and communities.
One would think this to be a fantastic opportunity for alternative points of view to rise and thrive. One would be wrong, mostly. Reasonably well-heeled people and well-positioned organizations are doing little except publishing materials and holding meetings during which they complain about how terrible everything is, but then do nothing substantive.
Admittedly, forming the new institutions that will be necessary if the West is to survive will take hard work and a great deal of networking, if only to get around Google’s increasing algorithmic constraints. A few, indeed, are making gallant efforts (alternative search engines, alternatives to other leviathans such as Facebook, alternative educational entities). But they cannot get the necessary financial support, and as a result, remain invisible outside the personal networks of their founders on an increasingly crowded and cluttered Internet.
What windows of opportunity we once saw are rapidly closing.
One wonders how far the West must decline before those with resources take action. Collapse is a process, not a singular event. Is the present ongoing collapse of the Western intellect just going to have to run its course? Perhaps the era and mindset that produced the best of our sciences and technologies (that landed men on the moon and returned them safely to Earth); the kind of philosophy able to justify real, intellectual diversity; and literature able to move our hearts instead of just inspire immature political rage, really is almost over.