The Bad Faith of Andrew Delbanco

Janice Fiamengo is an author, editor, and Professor of English at the University of Ottawa.


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A conservative complaint against Left-liberal intellectuals, commentators, and journalists is that in their zeal to discredit those with whom they disagree, they tend to dismiss, belittle, and misrepresent conservative ideas rather than engage fairly with their substance.

I recently reviewed Bruce Bawer’s The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind for Front Page Magazine, commending it as an important analysis of the virulently anti-American gobbledygook that passes for high-level scholarship at American universities today. Bawer shows how the brand of theory that focuses on ethnic and gender experience (Women’s Studies, Chicano Studies, and so on) teaches young people to see themselves as victims and to hate America for its putatively oppressive history. In preparing my review, I had read Professor Andrew Delbanco’s damning assessment of the book in the New York Times and quoted from it briefly in my concluding paragraph.

Delbanco’s review has remained in my thoughts for its glib disingenuousness. It struck me as an exemplary instance of the leftist refusal to treat conservative ideas responsibly. From the progressivist rectitude of his opening compliment on Bawer’s contribution to gay studies (could he not have found a less stereotypical word than “sensitive” to praise it?) to the distancing quotation marks he uses for “radical Islam” in mentioning Bawer’s political work, Delbanco’s review is a showcase of leftist rhetorical maneuvers and a dishonest document from first to last, deserving of a more detailed analysis than I was able to give it previously.

Delbanco’s attack on The Victims’ Revolution has two essential planks: that Bawer’s is an “intemperate” “caricature” rather than an informed and informative analysis, and that it is “out of date,” a “rear-guard action against an enemy who has largely ceded the field.” In the course of the review, he also accuses Bawer of various other intellectual failings, in particular lack of “balance” and accuracy.

These are serious charges, serious enough to dissuade a reader from taking time to look into the book. What is remarkable about Delbanco’s review is not only that the charges are demonstrably false but also that Delbanco does not even attempt to substantiate them. Employing instead the time-honored tactics of leftist attack, he is content to malign the book falsely rather than to demonstrate specifically where and how its argument is incorrect.

On this score, it is telling that Delbanco never takes issue with Bawer’s account of the intellectual vacuity and misleading anti-Americanism at the heart of contemporary academic theory; nor does he argue with a single one of Bawer’s claims about its leading figures, strategies, or effects. Instead, he simply ignores the whole lot—every documented pronouncement, conference paper, academic discussion, interview response, course title, and reference text—dismissing it all as a “caricature” with only “a modicum of truth” by a writer “overwrought by his own outrage.” If Bawer had written a different sort of piece—perhaps, say, an impressionistic short article, heavy on personal opinion and light on evidence—such a reviewer response might be fair. If Bawer had confined his analysis to the work of a few fringe radicals or had quoted only from marginal and largely discredited texts, then Delbanco’s dismissive summation would be justified.

But it is not. Although one would never guess it from Delbanco’s account, The Victims’ Revolution is a detailed chronicle in which the exact words of Identity Studies theorists are extensively quoted and analyzed. Bawer has focused on the central figures in the field—heavyweight academic stars Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., among others—those whose works appear, and are admiringly studied, on course lists across North America and are quoted by nearly every PhD student in the humanities who wants to show off his or her theoretical savvy. How can a work be a “caricature” when it quotes for hundreds of pages from the avowed leaders of the field? Such a slur by Delbanco is an attempt to distract his readers from the fact that he is unable, by any legitimate means, to defend such faux scholarship.

Delbanco pursues his diatribe with an equally serious and similarly unsubstantiated charge. He claims that Bawer, as an American who has lived in Norway for many years, does not really know the field he writes about, that he jetted back on a brief visit as an academic tourist, and took away an erroneous impression from the “few conferences” he attended. According to Delbanco, the type of theory Bawer so despises has now largely faded from the scene. “Many of my younger colleagues,” Delbanco assures the reader, “are returning to close readings of literary classics” and carrying out a “synthesis of the old political history … with the newer social history.” Who are these younger scholars returning to solid, traditional methods? In which acclaimed new books have the identity radicals been debunked? If it is the case that the tide has turned, it would be cause for rejoicing indeed, and for a decisive rejection of Bawer’s thesis. But Delbanco fails to cite a single example of the academic return to sanity. It would have been simple enough to mention one or two titles or names (though these would not, admittedly, have been adequate to make his case for the irrelevance of Bawer’s concerns); but he fails to provide even these few. Taking his page from the Leftist playbook, he chose a personal discrediting of Bawer rather than a genuine counter-argument.

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  • Schlomotion

    Mr. Delbanco raises excellent points in his extremely tame review. Bruce Bawer, who fled the United States in 1998 espouses negative views on America and American culture that are a time capsule back to 1997 when Mary Lefkowitz wrote Not Out Of Africa which was a pitched battle between Judeocentricity and Afrocentricity. In this period of college literature, Zionism was in its death throes as a subcomponent of the Identity Studies program and experienced the great schism into Jewish Studies on the one hand and Neoconservatism on the other. The Judeocentrists laid claim to Hellenism while the Afrocentrists dismissed it, and so the Judeocentrists went to war with the Afrocentrists, especially Cheikh Anton Diop. (Honorable mention to David Horowitz who edited G.J. Krupey's all out feeble assault on Public Enemy, 3rd Bass, and KRS-One also in 1997).

    Mr. Bawer is a time capsule from back when people wore orange and purple Cross-Colours jeans and did leg hops. His attack on Identity Studies is a zombified rehash of, yes, a fad that faded from the college scene well over 15 years ago. He attacks Michael Eric Dyson, another afrocentric writer whose big books were, again, 15 years ago. All this hype for Mr. Bawer's book, and the glowing reviews, and the ferocious backlash at the poor reception is coming from PJ Media and is quite a tempest in a plastic Michael Jordan cup.

    • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

      You always are a bigot, aren't you?

    • Zionista

      more drivel from a Jew-obsessed nobody

    • SCREW SOCIALISM

      Shariamotion,

      Happy Eternal Nakba!

      May all your jihads turn into NAKBAS!

      PS, The 9/11 anniversary is coming up .

  • Advocatus

    Nah, it's not working, man. The smarter you try to sound, the more vacuous you come across (if that's possible at all, after all this time). Being a contrarian takes more than just saying nay reflexively at any given opportunity.

    Have you read Bawer's latest book? I doubt it. So who would you know whether Delbanco's review of it was a fair assassment of its contents and arguments?

    Meanwhile, regading your inane post on another thread, not to worry, Flippo, I can lend you a box of tissues to try your tears of a wounded ego.

    Carry on.

  • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ JasonPappas

    If Delbanco is right and we can junk everything written over 15 years ago in ethnic studies, what kind of field is this? It's time to close down these departments.

  • Rifleman

    “rear-guard action against an enemy who has largely ceded the field.” – That makes no tactical sense. An enemy ceding the field might pull a rear-guard action, but not the party taking taking the field.

    You would think an academic critisizing a book on academics, would be a little more knowledgable and academic.

    • Morty62

      Touche. I noticed that mistake as well. It got me thinking of the Song of Roland and the classic rear-guard battle fought by Roland and his men as the Frankish army withdrew from the field. Clearly, this is no longer taught in literature classes that emphasize identity issues.

      • Rifleman

        I haven't looked through a college text outside of hard sciences in decades, myself, but I could see the direction they were going, and I always understood why. The socialists and their allies of convenience, the jihadis, openly declare Western Civilization must go. One can't defend something they know little or nothing about, and something, or rather anything else, has to take its' place.

        Their main enemy is the thought and history behind individual identity and rights.

  • clarespark

    Andrew Delbanco is the king of the American Studies movement in academe, a movement that elevates "multiculturalism". Here is the index to my numerous blogs on multiculturalism: http://clarespark.com/2011/03/28/index-to-multicu…. As for Delbanco, he looted my book on the Melville Revival to "prove" that Melville (a stand-in for Captain Ahab and American exceptionalism) was indeed an abusive husband and father. My book was devoted to showing that such an accusation was a rumor circulated by the "anti-imperialist" Left, and had no merit. Anything he writes is deeply suspect, but he is today's academic royalty.

    • mlcblog

      As always, clarespark.

    • mlcblog

      Gosh…you must be so smart….you have so many blogs and web sites to give us, but I can't quite see where to read about DelBlanco. I appreciate your hard work and your passion about getting your story out to us.

  • nightspore

    There's another evasive aspect to Delbanco's critique. Suppose he's right, and the fads have faded (which I strongly doubt). Why were these silly ideas allowed to proliferate in the first place? Why would an idiot like Judith Butler – who is beyond parody – ever become an academic star, why is a character like Bill Ayres a professor, (etc, etc), if there isn't something deeply wrong with modern academia?

    • mlcblog

      Yes.

  • rckymthigh2000

    Sounds like Delbanco didn't even bother to read the book.

  • Peter Grush

    Americans are often fooled by people who write crap in really good sounding prose, but that is like all of us buying the products being sold to us by salespersons with an English accent.

  • Hershel Parker

    Clare Spark says that Andrew Delbanco looted her book. Well, he looted my biography of Melville for snippets from family letters when I had transcribed and quoted from. This saved him from doing any archival work. If you have not read his moving tale of fleeing Houghton Library after handling a letter to Melville, you shoiuld readit in his HERMAN MELVILLE. He was just too sensitive to do archival work because it violated the privacy of Melville. In several places after I began speaking out in 2007 I have protesting his lying about me in the NEW REPUBLIC in 2002 when he made it clear to his readers that I had merely fantasized the existence of THE ISLE OF THE CROSS and POEMS. In 2002 he said I could not be trusted anywhere because I had fantasized these lost books, yet me mentioned them in 2005 as having existed, though he did not say how he had learned of their existence. I don't see any moral superiority here to RJ Ellory who is in the new now. In fact, I think it is worse for a chaired professor at Columbia to put his name to lies in the NEW REPUBLIC than it is to covertly attack your rivals on AMAZON–a chaired professor at Columbia is assumed to be honest.

  • Hershel Parker

    Sorry about the typos. Writing about Delbanco's lies in the NEW REPUBLIC still makes me sick.

  • Jasper J

    nice thesaurus

  • Hershel Parker

    Carl Rollyson takes up my expose of Delbanco in the WALL STREET JOURNAL of 30 March 2013, "The Hunt for Herman Melville."