The title of this piece relates to an article in the City Journal, a book review of The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind, a book that presupposes that our culture has become degraded, and questions why that is. The presumed answer is that the mainspring of this coarsening of culture stems from from multiculturalism that is being taught in our colleges and universities, i.e., our “intelligensia”. First read the review by Claire Berlinski, and then I have some thoughts at the end. — JH
Is the Enemy Us?
Embracing—and challenging—Bruce Bawer’s powerful new book
23 November 2012
By Claire Berlinski
The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind, by Bruce Bawer (Harper Collins, 400 pp., $25.99)
In his new book, Bruce Bawer has proposed an answer to vexing questions: Why has our culture become degraded? Why have our politics become polarized? And why has our public debate coarsened? Bawer locates the source of these misfortunes in the changes that have taken place in American higher education over the last generation—above all, the emergence of multicultural “identity studies.” The academy, he observes, is “the font of the perfidious multicultural idea and the setting in which it is implanted into the minds of American youth.”
In what must be reckoned a martyrdom operation, Bawer has spent countless hours not only reading the collective oeuvre of the leading luminaries in Black, Women’s, Gender, Queer, Fat, and Chicano Studies, but also traveling America to attend their conferences. At a gathering of the Cultural Studies Association at the University of California, Berkeley, for instance, Bawer encounters the young Michele, who’s “like, a grad student at UC Davis?” She’s “sort of reviving a Gramschian-style Marxism,” involving the idea that global warming is “sort of, like, a crisis, in the human relationship to nature?” Bawer claims that his heart goes out to her. (His heart is bigger than mine.)
This inability of many young Americans to express a simple or even grammatically coherent thought, in Bawer’s view, owes to a variety of academic fads that in the early 1980s captured the American university. One was postmodernism, of course, which traced its roots to the great anthropologists, but from which, alas, was derived a form of crude cultural relativism that achieved the ignominious trifecta of insipidity, incoherence, and blithe ignorance of a philosophical literature treating the idea of relativism from the Sophists to, at the very least, G. E. Moore. From this followed the conclusion that values, such as individual liberty, were not universal, and as the Canadian poet David Solway put it, that we must perforce believe that “[t]here are no barbarians, only different forms of civilized men.”
Then arrived the minor idea of hegemony, conceived by the minor Marxist intellect Antonio Gramsci, who argued that modern liberal democracies are no freer than the most ruthless of totalitarianisms. The oppression was merely unseen. That this idea is absurd—engineers don’t waste energy worrying about plane crashes so subtle that passengers neither notice them nor complain of them—was no obstacle to its advancement. Bawer notes as well the Leninist Paulo Freire, who gave us the common jargon of the contemporary humanities—dialogue, communication, solidarity—and the idea that the point of education is to recognize one’s own oppression so as better to resist it. The Marxist post-colonialist Frantz Fanon completes the intellectual trio.
The chief objective of an education in the humanities today, Bawer argues—with abundant anecdotal evidence to support the claim—is to appreciate that life is all about hegemonic power and to use “theory” to uncover its workings. Depending upon their sex, skin color, or sexual orientation, students are asked to accept as axiomatic that they are either the unconscious instrument of such power or the repository of its collective grievance and victimhood.
It’s common these days—perhaps it has always been—for reviewers to read the first and last chapters of a book and deliver a superficial judgment upon it. Bawer—we’ve never met but have exchanged e-mails, and I consider him a friend—may take comfort in knowing that I’ve read his book several times and thought about it deeply. It is an outstanding work.
Yet I’m not persuaded by his ultimate argument that our cultural rot emanates fundamentally from the universities. In the first place, these very universities also—still—produce the world’s deepest study of the humanities. Is it fair to associate, say, the Southern Oregon University Center for Shakespeare Studies with the aforementioned stammering bimbo, Michele? Does the syllabus of Miami University’s “Dostoevsky as a Social Philosopher” suggest any preoccupation with Frantz Fanon? This is perhaps not Bawer’s point, but given his conclusion—that parents have been categorically deceived in placing their faith in higher education—it is not unreasonable to point out that many American universities still provide an outstanding introduction to the traditional canon.
Our universities, to be sure, inspire more than their portion of cant and self-indulgent fatuousness. But these maladies are neither limited to the universities nor necessarily the source of our larger laments. In fact, perhaps the phenomena he describes are merely a symptom.
I have other suspicions—none that I can prove—about the answers to Bawer’s questions. The structure and economics of the post–Cold War media environment, for example, give cause for alarm. Indeed, the results of the destruction of the traditional cartel media have shaken my faith in market freedom: Americans don’t strike me as better-informed than they were in the Cold War era. The profound crisis of national confidence engendered by America’s failure to improve the world in the wake of September 11 is perhaps also part of the picture. Then there are Facebook, Twitter, and Google, which have inadvertently created an electorate able, should it choose—and apparently it does—to read only the news that confirms its political instincts. This, too, has contributed to polarization and ignorance.
Might the blame for our cultural coarsening be shared, say, with the advent of television and the Internet, the growing national obsession with crude, violent music and sports or the decline of censorship? It is dismaying for a civil libertarian to contemplate these hypotheses. Yet it’s dismaying, too, to imagine that intellectuals might rule them out simply because they’re unpleasant to contemplate.
I don’t know what precisely the problem is, only that there is a problem. But having observed this condition from abroad—as Bawer has—I can think of only one place that would allow me to study the issue at leisure, in peace, and in depth: the universities.
None of this, of course, makes me yearn to spend time among the Fat Studiers. But they remain the outliers; they are a trend; and they are unlikely to produce much of value. Reading the works on the comparative literature syllabus at the California State University, Long Beach, on the other hand, will surely do those students quite a bit of good.
Claire Berlinski, a City Journal contributing editor, is an American journalist who lives in Istanbul. She is the author of There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.
Are we less cultured? Is society, much less public debate, coarser? Are we more politically polarized? Has this been brought about by multiculturalism? These questions are not new; all societies in history have looked backward at various times for better days, some Golden Age. Those of you who read my Thanksgiving statement will recall this quote from Marcus Tullius Cicero, statesman, orator, and writer (106-43 BCE):
Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.
Actually, the broad trend of history has shown that things are better, even culture, politics, and public debate. Our views on this have to do with one’s frame of reference.
Let me give you an example. A person receiving a high school diploma in the late 19th century or early 20th century had the equivalent of perhaps a junior college liberal arts education of today. The classes were more rigorous and the courses fit into the classic definition of a liberal arts education: that is, a well rounded, well educated person versed in literature, history, mathematics, science, art, and rhetoric. Perhaps such courses were superior to some of today’s college curricula.
But here is the catch: few people reached that pinnacle. In 1899-1900 only 6.4% of students graduated from high school. So even if education is worse, at least more people are being taught the basics and perhaps more.
Culture? Today there is a proliferation of cultural activities, if you want them: art museums, symphonies, ballet, opera, light opera, theater, natural history museums. These were not as prevalent during the Golden Age (whatever age you think that is). So you could argue that we are more “cultured” than ever before.
Perhaps we are “coarser” than any time in the past 100 years. In my vision of the Golden Age swearing was not acceptable in mixed company or in public. Rude T-shirts were not to be found. People were more polite to each other and it was not acceptable to flip someone off. People didn’t have cell phone with which to answer and interupt the conversation you were having with them. The concept of being a “gentleman” or “lady” meant that you were trying to better yourself and perhaps escape a lowly background to become a respected citizen of your community. On the other hand one could say that racism and intolerance to others’ religion or sexual behavior was prevalent and was “coarse.” I believe that racism and other forms of bigotry are diminished today in comparison to my Golden Age.
If you are under the impression that politics in the Golden Age was a genteel profession practiced by noble, educated Brahmins then you would be mistaken. Politics has always been about opposites clashing for power. I would submit it was rougher, dirtier, and more corrupt in the past than it is today. Perhaps you see the “corruption” at a higher level today with lobbyists spreading their largesse to willing politicians, but that’s rather tame in comparison to the Golden Age. It was Nixon’s VP, Spiro Agnew, who was still receiving bribe payoffs from his position as governor when he was ensconced in his White House offices. And for a good deal of the 20thC, the Democrats controlled the presidency and Congress and they could afford to be very cordial with their powerless opponents.
The author, Mr. Bawer, has a point though: colleges don’t always prepare our students for the world. You could say that about our high schools as well, but let’s stick to the topic of his book. His view is that multiculturalism has ruined a couple of generations of students who are now incapable of carrying on civilization.
It is difficult to argue too strongly against his point, but cultural relativism is a symptom of a deeper problem. And that is the rejection of underlying truths of humanity. They deny the rational mind.
The flaw in this modern philosophy is that your “truth” is equal my “truth”, and that there are no constants, no underlying principles by which we ought to live. My “truth” is, apparently, whatever I want to believe. That, of course, denies Western Civilization’s quest for truth much less the nature of human beings and their rational mind. Hobbes, Locke, and other philosophers built on a tradition of thinking going back to Aristotle that identified the idea of Natural Law, the fundamental ideas which best suit the human condition and the organization of society. There are truths, constants by which we humans ought to live, and history has shown that when we do so live, we prosper. You don’t need religion to discover these truths; they are definable by reason alone and religion has often been at odds with reason.
Most of the types of multiculturalism that Mr. Bawer discusses are related to classical Marxist ideas which have been seized upon by its exponents to express their rejection of “capitalism”, the oppression of “classes” of people (which they define), and their distaste of our “crass” materialistic society.
I have my own ideas as to why these advocates believe what they believe (mostly psychological in nature), but we don’t have to know why they believe what they believe. We just have to know that they believe.
So, how do you discover these truths? The Greeks and their intellectual heirs have done a pretty good job of exploring these ideas over the centuries, so much of the hard work has been done for us. The first step along this path is to learn how to think rationally. Again, this is well trodden ground. This is the science of epistemology, which is the study of how we know what we know. Add to that reason and logic. Then when one learns how to use the tools that nature has given us (applied reason), we can study the history of ideas (philosophy) and be exposed to ideas about ideas, both good and bad. We can then study the social sciences and ideas about human organization, both good and bad. Perhaps then we would have the tools to discern the falsity of multiculturalism and the enemies of reason.
Does anyone do this today? The answer is yes, but mostly the answer is no. And that is why our college students are attracted to ideas like multiculturalism. They don’t have the tools to discern the truth or falsity of things. Mostly they feel strongly about issues without any real understanding of what they are doing. This phenomenon reaches up into the faculty and administration as well. Otherwise, these intellectual charlatans would have no podium from which to indoctrinate young, impressionable minds.
In summing up, it is clear that most things aren’t worse than the “Golden Age”. On the other hand, there is a clear trend in education to deny the fundamentals which Western Civilization has discovered and applied to made us prosper. This is a dangerous trend, but I think the opponents of reason have always been around. It’s important to identify these trends and do whatever we can to expose them for what they are. It is my goal here at the Daily Capitalist to do this in the field of economics and political organization. If nothing else, Keynesian theory in all of its forms is a denial of reason and a worship of false science.