The Fraud of Identity Studies

On Sunday, the New York Times Book Review ran a notice of my new book, The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind.  It’s about the spread in American colleges and universities, over recent decades, of faux disciplines such as Women’s Studies, Black Studies, and Queer Studies.  It’s also about the explicitly far-left, postmodern ideology that underlies these “studies” and that now permeates the humanities and social sciences.  Rejecting the idea that a proper higher education in the humanities is about becoming acquainted with the most glorious products of Western civilization, learning to think critically, and forming one’s own taste, the practitioners of these “studies” dismiss the concepts of objective truth and aesthetic value, depict the West as evil and non-Westerrners as virtuous victims, and encourage students to see themselves and others not as individuals but as members of groups.  Hence these “identity studies,” which find racism, sexism, and classism everywhere they look.

The Times review, by Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University, is a curious piece of work.  Repeatedly Delbanco acknowledges that I have a point; but he also repeatedly seeks to blunt my critique by suggesting that the phenomena I’ve described aren’t as widespread or as bad as I suggest, and that, in any case, all this is old news.  At one point, Delbanco even accuses me of caricature.  Nope, the book is straight reportage: the people I quote in it all really said those ridiculous things.  Finally, Delbanco makes a big point of insisting that people at his institution, Columbia University, are more interested than ever in the kind of serious literary and cultural study whose survival I’m concerned about.  In other words: move on, folks, nothing to get worked up about here.

All of which made it especially rich to read the latest news, just the other day, about Judith Butler, who is arguably the most famous of Delbanco’s humanities colleagues at Columbia (where she taught last spring and will teach again next spring, while retaining a permanent appointment at Berkeley).  Butler, whom I describe in my book as a “postmodernist colossus,” is almost certainly the most revered living figure in Queer Studies – a discipline that, its name notwithstanding, has nothing whatsoever to do with gay history or culture but is, rather, an exercise in the fetishizing of otherness and “transgression.”

To many observers outside the academy, and to those inside it whose heads are screwed on properly, Butler is something of a joke.  In 1998 the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature awarded her first prize in its Bad Writing Contest for an absurdly pretentious and impenetrable sentence in one of her articles.  I will do you the favor of not quoting that sentence (it’s here, if you’re feeling masochistic), but I will quote the erudite Denis Dutton, the contest’s late lamented founder, who pointed out that to try to make sense out of Butler’s sentence “is to miss the point.  This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind.  Actual communication has nothing to do with it.” Indeed, Butler’s sentence was not about communication but about performativity, which may most succinctly be described as a kind of high-rent postmodern version of showing off.  Butler could hardly have defended herself on performative grounds to a non-academic audience, however, and so when she wrote a New York Times op-ed responding to the embarrassment of Dutton’s award, she fell back, more or less, on the more tried-and-true position that complex ideas require complex language.

But the latest news about Butler doesn’t have to do – not directly, anyway – with the quality of Butler’s prose.  It has to do with the twisted political views that are an almost inevitable byproduct of the ideology that underlies identity studies.  Get this: (1) Butler identifies as an “anti-Zionist Jew.”  (2) Back in the summer of 2010, while she was in Berlin to attend gay-pride events, she publicly embraced Hamas and Hezbollah as “progressive” organizations of the left and turned down an award from a gay group that she accused of “Islamophobia” for criticizing the Muslim gay-bashing.  (3) Since then, Butler has publicly declared her fervent support for the “BDS” movement, which seeks to isolate Israel with boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.

Despite all this, the city of Frankfurt, Germany, decided this year to give Butler the Theodor W. Adorno award, which is presented each year on September 11, Adorno’s birthday, to people who have made outstanding contributions in philosophy, music, theater, or film.  In one sense, it could be argued that honoring Butler in this way is amply justified – the Marxist Adorno, after all, was one of the famous “Frankfurt School” critics who flourished in the years between the world wars and whose writings were a major foundation of the entire contemporary postmodern academic project, including, not least, the work of Judith Butler.  (Indeed, Butler cited Adorno in her defense in her above-mentioned Times op-ed.)  On the other hand, Adorno, unlike Butler, was a passionate supporter of Israel; as the petition protesting Butler’s award points out, moreover, Adorno was “deprived of academic teaching because he was considered Jewish” – a situation that is a bit too close for comfort to the aims of Butler’s cherished BDS movement.

As you will notice if you peruse the list of petition signatories, there’s considerable international opposition to Butler’s award.  But in reaction to this opposition there’s been a massive outpouring of support for Butler, mostly from American and Israeli academics.  When word got out late last week that Benjamin Weinthal of the Jerusalem Post was planning to write about the controversy (his article ran on Sunday), his inbox was flooded with e-mails from places like NYU, Berkeley, Princeton, and Columbia – and, notably, several from Ben-Gurion University – assuring him that Butler is anything but an anti-Semite.  Of course, what does and doesn’t constitute anti-Semitism is an intensely disputed question nowadays: in this connection, it was instructive to note that a number of the e-mails sent to Weinthal made reference to Israel’s “apartheid,” its “inhumane war against the Palestinian People,” “Israel’s rights-abusive policies in the Occupied Territories,” and so on; one of the Israeli professors actually followed the word Israel in her address with a question mark.

Far from reassuring anybody that Butler is no anti-Semite, these e-mails painted a vivid picture of a segment of the professoriate whose opinions about Israel are both deeply poisonous and profoundly irrational.  And the e-mails made it clear, moreover (as if it were not already clear enough), that Butler herself is a valued member of this unpleasant crew.  What’s important to recognize here is that Butler’s take on Israel can’t and shouldn’t be viewed in isolation from her academic activities; on the contrary, one can’t properly make sense (to use the word loosely) of the views on Israel, Hamas, and so forth that are held by someone like Butler without being aware of the limitless contempt for the West, and the limitless tolerance for non-Western (and especially Islamic) iniquity, that are part and parcel of the identity-studies worldview.  An observer unfamiliar with Queer Studies might reasonably wonder why Butler, its reigning queen, would be so obsessed with condemning the only country in the Middle East that’s safe for gay people and would happily ally herself with groups that support capital punishment for gays; to be familiar with Queer Studies, however, is to know that it has absolutely nothing – nada – to do with standing up for gay people’s rights and dignity but is, rather, a celebration of alleged (and preferably non-Western and non-white) alienness and victimhood.

In short: the worldwide headlines about Judith Butler and the Adorno Award only serve to underscore that the moral and intellectual sickness that is identity studies is, pace Delbanco, very much with us – and that its pernicious influence, alas, extends far beyond the groves of academe.

  • Chezwick

    Great stuff Bruce. You've long been the eyes and ears of the anti-Jihad in northern Europe…and now you're filling a similar role in academia.

    A personal anecdote….my daughter was an undergrad at a state university a couple of years ago and had a Professor who asserted that racial classification was not based on physiognomy, but was rather a social construct. She came home wide-eyed and incredulous….and educated in a way that was never intended.

  • Thom

    The idea that race is a meaningless social construct is itself a meaningless social construct.

    • kafir4life

      I'm amazed at how some people decide that their entire identity is tied to their "race" rather than their individualism and accomplishments. The synonym for "race" in this context is "loser". It becomes an easy out for the motivationally impaired, or put another way, Obama supporters.

      • ★FALCON★

        "I'm amazed at how some people decide that their entire identity is tied to their "race" .

        When someone trades in race based politics – that's all they have and you're witnessing a very shallow person.

    • Elizabeth

      Race as a social construct categorizes and divides people based on physical characteristics, which often leads to conflict and oppression.
      It encourages people to see themselves as VICTIMS.
      There is nothing CONSTRUCTIVE about that.

    • Omar

      Identity Politics,in general, is essentially an illness because it creates division between social groups in society. Identity Politics does not help those certain groups, but instead does those groups more harm than help. Instead of creating identity politics, we need to create a single standard for everyone, regardless of characteristics. That way, everyone can succeed in life and that would be the American Dream.

    • cjk

      Thanks for pointing out the obvious which unfortunately needs to be pointed out and frequently.
      We can shun those who think in terms of race.
      We can show intellectually why race shouldn't matter and correctly so.
      We can also stick our heads in the sand.
      Race has been, is, and will continue to be a HUGE force as concerns just about anything human.
      Many of us and myself included wish it weren't so, but those who act as if it ain't so do so to the detriment of themselves, their culture, and their children.
      This is the sad reality of fallen man and it will never change.

  • Elizabeth

    What could be more divisive than “identity studies,” which find racism, sexism, and classism everywhere you look?
    Liberals trade in divisiveness. Divide and conquer is their strategy.

  • Yvette

    Bruce, as a fan, I'm very happy to find you here at FPM. Looking forward to you next book.

  • ★FALCON★

    In my opinion – "Identity Studies" has jumped the rails like a toxic tanker with the normalization of homosexual behavior to the point that it's equal with the sexuality of a man and a woman.

    This was achieved through the now legal adoption of children by the psychologically imbalanced.

    Liberals never like the society they create for others and why they don't live in it.

  • tagalog

    I struggled through Butler's prize-winning sentence in the Bad Writing Contest of the publication Philosophy and Literature. It confirmed my long-held belief that people who have nothing to say, but somehow are compelled to write, hide their lack of substance with big words and lengthy sentences, and hope that their obfuscatory language will be misunderstood to be an expression of important ideas.

    I've always thought that writing is a discipline by the use of which a person transmits his otherwise unknowable ideas to the world by putting those ideas down on paper clearly enough that someone could understand them, but scholars like Butler make that idea ridiculous.

    Such people -although it would do no ultimate good because they still would have nothing to say- ought to be required to read George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language.

    • johnnywoods

      Tagalog, I am glad to hear that I am not the only one scratching my head after reading her statement. Have they changed the definition of "intelligence" over the last 50 years or have I just forgoten what it was? If she is one of the " ten smartest women in the world" I give up.

  • Schlomotion

    I was going to ask, isn't it about 20 years late to pen an anti-"identity studies"diatribe? Then I realize that this is a hit-piece on a woman described as antisemitic, with the disclaimer that half of all accusations of antisemitism are garbage.

    Judith Butler is Jewish, at least from a Jewish family. However, she holds the divestment opinion. This does not stop Bruce Bawer from trying to relentlessly hammer on her purported antisemitism. One wonders what Mr. Bawer's core motivation is in this theatre of the absurd reenactment of The Crucible, where antisemitism is witchcraft and even Jews can be witches.

    • tagalog

      Which half?

    • Omar

      Anti-Semitism is not witchcraft. It is the sentiment that many countries in the Middle East have as a result of their refusal to live in peace with the Jews in Israel. If there is any witchcraft today, it is the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters around the world (especially in the Middle East and Western countries) using the term "Islamophobia" to smear critics of radical Islamism, Islamofascism and Sharia. Critics of Islamofascism are not anti-Muslim. If anything, critics of Islamofascism are supporting the rights of Muslim women who are oppressed in Islamofascist countries like Iran other placesand abroad in. On the other hand, the Israel-bashers who organize the BDS nonsense are supporting a long-term anti-Semitic agenda (which is also the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, the regime in Iran, al-Qaeda and their supporters), which is the destruction of the democratic Israel. the BDS movement is trying to conduct a similar boycott to what the Hitler regime did in Germany in the 1930s, which is to boycott Jewish-owned businesses. It's almost like history is repeating itself again. Bottom line, the BDS movement's long term goals are indeed anti-Semitic.

  • Omar

    Unlike Herman Cain, who truly believes in the American Dream and is a successful businessman in America, Judith Butler is really suffering from Stockholm Syndrome because she is supporting organizations (like Hamas) that support killing gays for being gay. This is really confusing.

  • Steve Chavez

    I was at a small university in Pennsylvania with only 3000 students and there were ELEVEN WOMAN STUDIES PROFESSORS with flyers posted all over to advertise their class.

    DIDN'T ROSA PARKS FIGHT SEGREGATION and "White's Only." Today there is African-American Studies and their department and even their own Student Union. Then you have BET or Black Entertainment Television, Congressional Black Caucus, American Black Journalists, and thousands more.

    What about all the LA RAZA, LULAC, Hispano Chamber of Commerce, Hispanic Roundtable, Chicano Studies, and thousands more.


    • johnnywoods

      Hey Steve, They must have also missed Martin Luther King`s "I have a dream" speech

  • BS77

    I got a degree in Identity Studies… look at me. Would you like fries with that?

  • clarespark

    For more on the institutionalization of identity politics see… "Race, Class, and Gender." This is a major review of the history of the discipline that has taken over the humanities since the 1960s generation got tenure.

  • clarespark

    For a brief look at transgressiveness as a dead end, see…. "GIRLS, or the new lost generation."

  • clarespark

    I am glad that Bruce Bawer took up the subject of transgressiveness, which has ruled the humanities for decades, producing such praised, but disappointing attempts as GIRLS on HBO, now nominated for several Emmy Awards. I wrote about Lena Dunham and her artist parents here:…. "Girls, or the new lost generation." For more on the evolution of "race, class, and gender" studies se e "'Race', Class, and Gender."

  • seen it all

    What little Miss Judith Butler needs is a good you-know-what, but the trouble is, no one, male, female, or otherwise, will go near her. The sad thing is, she probably hates her father, for god knows what no good reason, maybe because he was Jewish, and all this rage is how she's acting out her delusional teen-aged resentment against him, not so very uncommon a behavior, really, but in her case a grudge so lasting and extreme that, morphed into her inarticulate post-modern philosophical mode, has won her a dubious, but widespread international fame.

  • flowerknife_us

    Is Judith Queer in the way necessary to really know of what she speaks?.

  • Ghostwriter

    Why do I have the feeling that this Judith Butler is just another loony academic crying out for attention? Also,Schlomind has made another moronic comment on the previous page. If you want to read it,knock yourself out. But,it's typical Schlomotion garbage. Empty of anything approaching a clear thought and his usual anti-Jewish comments make for unpleasant reading for those of us with a functioning brain.

  • Amused

    Much ado about nothing . Just another strawman to attack the left …..and boring at that .It looks as if Bower's a little oversensitive about a critic of his book . What value could Bower possibly see in any criticism coming from the likes of DeBlanco , or for that matter Butler ? But you know bullsheet artists always bicker with one another . Queer Studies is bullsheet / Bowers book is bullsheeet / and everyone already knows where Columbia stands regarding Israel .The only thing I find surprising in the article is the mis-use of the word " journalism " .
    However , if Bower's just getting a plug in for his book …I can understand that .

  • Drakken

    I usually don't talk to anyone with an ethnic studies degree, but when I do I usually ask for large fries with that.

    Thank God our HR dept throws every resume with that less than useless degree into the trash.