Thursday, January 21, 2016
The Academic War on Facts
E. M. Cadwaladr
When I was in college back in the 1980s, a couple of new degree programs, Women’s Studies and Afro-American Studies, were starting to gain in popularity. The purpose of these programs, everyone knew perfectly well, was to advance the cause of political activism for these two demographic groups. Activism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Without a doubt, there really had been barriers to women’s advancement, more social than legal, but by the 1980s these were clearly fading -- more as the result of the huge number of women advancingthemselves than as the result of the efforts of radical feminists. Similarly, there had also been genuinely oppressive Jim Crow laws constraining black Americans, but those laws had been almost entirely knocked down in the 1950s and 60s. America of the 1980s was not a perfectly gender-blind or color-blind society, but we were clearly on the right track. True sexism and racism were well on the decline. But along with the real progress there came a class of professional progressive activists. Their more courageous predecessors having all but won the war, this new generation of reformers established permanent institutions in academia to refight it. Never mind the notable lack of sexist or racist stalwarts in authority to oppose. If an activist runs out of enemies, it is no great challenge to reinvent them.
An institution of reform has the same core priority as any other institution. That priority is to survive and grow. Institutions provide good jobs for the people who make the decisions, promote the cause, and shuffle the paper. I have often suspected that if a scientist arrived in the lobby of the American Cancer Society with a cure for all forms of cancer, the managing director’s first impulse would be to jump for joy – but a moment’s reflection would reveal the need to take the wretched troublemaker to the basement and beat him to death. What’s the American Cancer Society without cancer? And what’s an activist without a cause?
Not wanting to be called either racist or sexist (the postmodernist equivalent to being accused of witchcraft) university administrations were not inclined to hold their new activist programs to any sort of standards. Whatever inflammatory theories emerged from them might have been greeted with an inward cringe -- but this absolutely had to be accompanied with an outward nod of approval. The phrases “moral courage” and “university administration” rarely come together in a single sentence.
One of the early products of this new activism was the feminist Susan Brownmiller’s concept of a “culture of rape”. In Brownmiller’s view, rape is not primarily a crime of an unrestrained sexual impulse, but is instead an assertion of power. It is not the personal violation of one individual by another, but is instead a political act -- an expression of all men’s collective desire to oppress all women. This strange idea annoyed me from the start. To begin with, I had never been invited to the secret meeting in which all of the planet’s men had voted to embark on such a brutish plan. More to the point, it was simply counter to the obvious facts. Real rapists are morally deficient, either for uniquely individual reasons, or because they are members of some nameable degenerate or barbaric culture -- the barbaric culture that is currently overrunning Europe leaps to mind. Does any sane person really think that what is going through a rapist’s mind is: “I feel an overwhelming urge to assert collective male dominance over women”? Decent men are quite resentful at being lumped into the collective “men” so that they can be held jointly accountable with genuine predators with whom they have little in common, and over whom they have no control. But preposterous ideas like this one suite the activist’s purposes. Brownmiller’s theory has two characteristics we have now seen repeated as a kind of formula. First, any critique of the theory brands you as part of the problem -- an unfeeling and reactionary troglodyte whose views only offer proof of the theory’s correctness. Second, the theory singles out no actionable causes, but simply drives an ugly wedge between two, largely artificial, classes. True, there really were men and women in 1975 when Brownmiller published her book (now, even the basic division of humanity into two simple genders is considered oppression) -- but there never was a polity of “all men” as distinct from a polity of “all women.” Whether Brownmiller or some more straightforwardly political radical like Alinsky made this blueprint is a matter of academic interest -- if you’ll forgive the play on words. Either way, the pattern was set.
Academia has a special place in society as one of very few institutions expected to define and promulgate truth. The more secular a society becomes, the more academia holds that power alone. That is why the decline in standards of evidence within any branch of academia is so damaging. Politics has always been the domain of liars and demagogues. It has been the twin bulwarks of religious moral principle and hard, substantiated facts that have held politics in check in modern times. We now live in a society where truths are no longer buttressed by either. If tenured professors are not interested in facts, we should not be too surprised that no one else is. Contemporary academic standards are not those of the hard sciences. Instead, they are the soft standards of liberal arts – not of physics and chemistry, but of literature and narrative. The question is no longer “Is it true?” but “Does it make a compelling story?” “Does it stir the audience’s feelings?” “Does it have clear-cut heroes and clear-cut villains?” This shift explains not only the weird synthesis of news with entertainment, but the equally bizarre prevalence of celebrity activism. Why would anyone, thinking rationally, care what a sadism-obsessed deviant like Quentin Tarantino has to say about political or social issues? People care because we live in a society without rational standards. We do not have “credible authorities” -- we only have “opinion makers.”
The government we are currently saddled with is saturated with officials from my generation. We were taught, however subtly, that the standards of truth to which people should be held accountable depend on who they are and what they happen to be saying. The grievances of minority groups, for example, can simply not be questioned. The grievances of non-minority groups (white southerners are a perennial favorite) can be immediately reviled and dismissed. Racism is back with a vengeance -- the difference is that now you will be called racist if you attempt to point it out. Relevant objective facts, like the prevalence of black-on-black crime, are excluded from consideration. Politically acceptable “truth” isn’t to be found in facts, but simply in the recitation of the narrative.
If the current state of things is terrible, the possibilities for the future are nearly unimaginable. What would happen if the self-indulgent, sexually ambiguous thumb-suckers that inhabit university safe-spaces today, demanding trigger warnings so that their hypersensitive feeling aren’t scratched by anything factual, find their way into positions of real authority? These monsters scare even the liberal Professor Frankensteins who created them. Mercifully, we may never know what a world run by student cry-bullies would be like -- but only because it will either collapse or change before they manage to ascend to the throne. In times of real scarcity, the people who put up the front money for university educations (parents, banks, or the Federal government) will figure out that investing money merely to produce unproductive narcissists is not only unprofitable, but redundant work. Even the worst middle school in the poorest inner-city ghetto can make losers out of any human raw material provided, bad or good. Indeed, contemporary culture probably produces losers without any educational assistance at all. Even now, the actual demand for educationally-induced political activism is minuscule. One elite school was all we needed to produce the narcissistic loser that occupies the White House now -- and one of him has been quite enough to nearly bring the country to its knees.