I have just been listening to a remarkable interview between Coleman Hughes, my favorite young public intellectual, and documentary filmmaker Meg Smaker about her documentary, Jihad Rehab, in which she interviews several Saudi men who were held at Guantanamo for years before being released into Saudi custody, where they underwent some re-education. The film was originally accepted by the Sundance festival, but the festival apologized for screening it in response to protests that a white woman had no right to make such a film, and Smaker found it impossible to get it shown anywhere for a long time after that. I haven't seen the film yet, although I hope to, but late in the interview this leads Coleman into an interesting comment about his classes at Columbia five or ten years ago. I shall explain in due course how that comment fits in with thoughts I've been having for a long time about the destruction of the humanities in universities and how exactly it came about.
I believe that the number of genuinely talented historians and literary critics is quite small, and much too small to staff the enormous university system that grew up in the United States in the postwar period. Our genuine intellectuals, I have found, are scattered at random throughout the population, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. Many of the smartest people, in addition, do not choose to become academics. Many who do become academics lack individual self-confidence and very easily go with the flow, and some of them suffer from impostor syndrome. That is why the majority of academics who write one book never write another one. And in the last forty years the whole cultural tradition allied to university life has been dying, with fewer people taking the time to read serious books and publishers catering more and more to mass tastes.
Now in the 1960s and 1970s, more women and nonwhites began going to graduate school, getting their degrees, and going on the job market. By the 1970s, by the way, the job market was extremely tight for everyone, regardless of demography, since the majority of faculty hired in the great university expansion of the 1960s-70s were still relatively young. In short, lots of us had trouble either finding a job or having the kind of impact we hoped to have. We responded in various different ways.
My text this morning is the introduction to a collection of essays, Gender and the Politics of History, by the historian Joan Wallach Scott, who was born in 1941 and received her doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin in 1969. The introduction of this 1988 book explains that her intellectual focus had shifted when she participated in Pembroke Center seminars at Brown University, focusing on poststructuralist theory. That theory--which the novelist David Lodge explored in several of his books--held that language is the only reality--a congenial thought for an academic--and that language always deploys, or contests, power relationships within society. Those relationships in turn stem from differences in gender, race, class, and sexual behavior. To make it clear how all this influenced Scott I shall use her own words.
"Gender, in these essays, means knowledge about sexual difference. I use knowledge, following Michel Foucault, to mean the understanding produced by cultures and societies of human relationships, in this case of those between men and women. Such knowledge is not absolute or true, but always relative. It is produced in complex ways within large epistemic frames that themselves have an (at least quasi-autonomous history. Its uses and meanings become contested politically and are the means by which relationships of power-of domination and subordination-are constructed. Knowledge refers not only to ideas but to institutions and structures, everyday practices as well as specialized rituals, all of which constitute social relationships. Knowledge is a way of ordering the world; as such it is not prior to social organization, it is inseparable from social organization. . . ."
"History figures in this approach not exclusively as the record of changes in the social organization of the sexes but also crucially as a participant in the production of knowledge about sexual difference. I assume that history's representations of the past help construct gender or the present. Analyzing how that happens requires attention to the assumptions, practices, and rhetoric of the discipline, to things either so taken for granted or so outside customary practice that they are not usually a focus for historians' attention. These include the notions that history can faithfully document lived reality, that archives are repositories of facts, and that categories like man and woman are transparent. They extend as well to examinations of the rhetorical practices of historians, the construction of historical texts, and the politics-that is, the power relationships-constituted by the discipline. In these essays history is as much the object of analytic attention as it is a method of analysis. Taken in both ways together, it provides a means for understanding and contributing to the process by which gender knowledge is produced.
"If the themes of gender and history unite this book, so does a preoccupation with theory. Although historians are not trained (in the United States at least) to be reflective or rigorous about their theory, I found it imperative to pursue theoretical questions in order to do feminist history. This resulted, I think, from my sense of frustration at the relatively limited impact women's history was having on historical studies generally and my consequent need to understand why that was the case. My motive was and is one I share with other feminists and it is avowedly political: to point out and change inequalities between women and men. It is a motive, moreover, that feminists share with those concerned to change the representation of other groups left out of history because of race, ethnicity, and class as well as gender."
Now having spent more than four decades navigating this new intellectual world--as described in A Life in History--I have to hand it to Professor Scott for summarizing the ideology behind the postmodernist revolution so succinctly. It makes perfect sense to me, too, that the author of these words had already reached the summit of the academy as a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Lay readers, however, may need a little help finding their way through these paragraphs. Let me try to translate them into English, as we used to say in the Army.
Scott is saying that language cannot be understood as providing objective descriptions of reality, because there is no reality outside of power relationships based upon gender, race, or class. (Had she written this introduction a few years later I'm sure she would have thrown in sexual orientation as well.) Theory, I would suggest--and I'm not enough of an intellectual historian of the last half century to prove this, but I think someone could--is a shorthand for "critical theory," which goes back to Karl Marx and which got a big boost in the twentieth century from the Frankfurt School in general and Herbert Marcuse in particular. And critical theory, I am now convinced, is really an intellectual game based on the assumption that every tenet of Enlightenment thought really means the opposite of what it says. Suppose we assume that the ideology of the equality of all persons, as enshrined in the US Constitution, really just hides the supremacy of straight white males? Suppose we assume (as Marcuse did) that free speech merely reserves the public square for hegemonic bourgeois ideas? Turning to critical race theory, suppose that we assume (as Derek Bell did) that the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 had nothing to do with attempts to better the lot of black Americans? The same "critical" spirit leads Scott, above, to question " that history can faithfully document lived reality, that archives are repositories of facts, and that categories like man and woman are transparent."
Now these ideas already dominated literature and history departments in universities by the time Scott wrote those words. Now they also dominate university administrations (a point to which I shall return) and have been adopted by the arts mainstream media and a whole industry of diversity trainers. Many people have been canceled for disputing them in public. I would like to suggest three different reasons why they have spread so widely.
First of all--they are related to genuine facts. Western society--and every other society that I know of--gave most political and economic power to men, racism and tribalism characterize every society that we know of, and western society defined homosexuality as evil for many centuries. An impartial observer must also note, however, that the ideas that have allowed western society to put aside legal sexism and racism and adopt a tolerant attitude towards homosexuality all came from the West. Slavery existed in every part of the world, but was first abolished in Europe (though not, of course, in European colonies), and then in the European-settled new nations of the Americas in the 19th century. The Europeans forced West Africa to give it up (although it persisted in Mauretania at least until the late 20th century.) The idea of citizenship as a category transcending race and gender is a western idea. Western-dominated institutions now advocate for women's and gay rights in the global south. It has always seemed ironic to me, by the way, that many of the female academics whose ranks have grown so quickly over the last few decades--proof, one might think, that the academy no longer discriminates against them--have made their careers attacking sexism in their own societies. In Scott's case, only five years ago she published a new book, Sex and Secularism, arguing that western secular ideologies had done more to deprive women of their rights than traditional belief systems such as Islam. Reviewer Laura Kipnis, who has had her own brush with cancellation by feminists, was not persuaded.
The second reason is emotional. This framework had an irresistible appeal for many (though never all) young academics who were not straight white males. Scott expresses this perfectly when she says that she turned to theory from "from my sense of frustration at the relatively limited impact women's history was having on historical studies generally and my consequent need to understand why that was the case. My motive was and is one I share with other feminists and it is avowedly political: to point out and change inequalities between women and men. It is a motive, moreover, that feminists share with those concerned to change the representation of other groups left out of history because of race, ethnicity, and class as well as gender." Now there were all sorts of possible reasons why women's history wasn't having the impact she had hoped for--but how satisfying it was to believe that the culprit was the hegemony of straight white males, which left no room for the beliefs and feelings of those they oppressed. For anyone other than straight white males, adopting this paradigm turned any racist, sexist or homophobic slight they had experienced either from other people or from the broader culture into another key to understanding the whole of western history. This was indeed "centering" their experience--another common boast of those who do this kind of history. My contemporary Camille Paglia tried to point out that one could not try to find evidence for this paradigm in classic texts without obviously distorting their meaning thirty years ago in her classic essay, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders"--but she remained an outsider in academia. And in the last decade universities have gone a step further, arguing that any perceived slight causes irreparable harm to oppressed persons and must therefore be punished, not infrequently with the loss of one's job. In fact, I would argue, the whole purpose of education is to take you outside yourself and expose you to people, ideas, and experiences that you have never had before. That's certainly what happened to me in college and graduate school, and I was and remain a straight white male.
And the third reason was careerist. Since "Contests about knowledge are now understood to be political, not only because they are contests, but because they are explicitly about the interests of groups (rather than the opinions of individuals) in the substance and form of knowledge"--as Scott wrote in another essay just a few years later--academia and society could move forward only by listening more to women, nonwhites and gays and less to straight white men--all of whom were speaking, whether they knew it or not, for their group. For the university and society, every female, nonwhite or gay hire represented a step forward, while any straight white male was a relic of an obsolete, oppressive ideology. And of course, within this climate, straight white males--vulnerable by definition--usually decided to profess the new ideology themselves, or at the very least, to keep their dissent to themselves.
The most disastrous result of the woke careerist impulse has been the cancerous growth of diversity bureaucracies throughout higher education. Diversity bureaucrats either abandoned scholarship early in their careers, or were never scholars in the first place. They are committed to the idea that universities have traditionally been racist, sexist and homophobic institutions, and that undoing all the harm they have done is their most important task. These bureaucrats now question course content and classroom interactions. Professors can no longer claim any intellectual authority based upon their training or scholarly achievements if just one student argues that they have been traumatized by something the professor said or by a text or piece of artwork that the professor showed them. If a member of a "marginalized group" complains, the professor is guilty.
And that brings me to what Coleman Hughes said during the interview with Meg Smaker, whose film is trying to emerge from cancellation. She pointed out that while some Muslims and some white ideologues had complained about her making it, many Muslims liked it very much. Hughes said the whole story reminded him of his undergraduate experience at Columbia, from which he graduated only a few years ago. Professors, he claimed, routinely assigned too much reading every week, and often began class by asking every student to talk briefly about it. If you were a "person of color" (the term he used), he said, and had not done the reading, you didn't have to admit that; you could simply say (in many cases at least) that since the author was white, the ideas did not seem to speak to you and you found it impossible to engage with them. That is, by the way, exactly what a young black music student says to a distinguished female conductor in the movie Tar when she tries to get him into a discussion of J. S. Bach (and he threw in Bach's "misogyny" for good measure.) That, sadly, is where higher education is today.
Through all these decades, some scholars from every demographic have stuck to the older principles of objectivity and universalism that created the western tradition. They have done so--like many of those who have resisted totalitarianism at much greater cost--because it was in their nature and it was literally all they could do. Like Orwell, they instinctively understand that freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four. Yet there have not been enough of them to define orthodoxy in our educational system.
Education cannot function if students are encouraged to deny teachers' intellectual authority. In universities they have no obligation to agree with their teachers, but if they can't take what they have to say seriously at all, they are in the wrong place. No one forced them to go to that particular college. Tragically, within just two generations, our institutions of higher learning have lost all self-confidence--not least, now, because they feel they must pander to students to keep them coming and stay alive. This whole process has gone so far that I don't see how it can be fixed, and I don't want readers to think that I have the answer. I hope merely that this essay will help them understand what is happening both in universities an in society at large today.