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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While contending that Bawer has misunderstood his subject, Delbanco engages in another diversionary tactic, claiming that a new enemy—a crop of “resolute utilitarians”—now dominates higher education and that Bawer has neglected to note it. Whether or not utilitarianism represents a grave threat to the humanities, it is almost certainly the case that identity politics has weakened the field to the extent that it may well now be vulnerable to a variety of threats. And the fact of utilitarianism in no way lessens the gravity of the issues Bawer has targeted.

The above represents the heart of Delbanco’s attack, but the review is littered with lesser charges and mischaracterizations. For example, in seeking to indict Bawer for writing a “deliberately intemperate” book, Delbanco states that he “fails to look squarely at the university that antedated what he calls the ‘victims’ revolution’—a place where women were considered too fragile for intellectual exertion, Jews were marginalized, and blacks and Hispanics were virtually absent.” The statement is neither factually accurate nor pertinent. As Delbanco must be aware, women were admitted to North American universities in the late nineteenth century, and by the 1950s had, despite lingering sexism, established a respected presence at the center of many academic disciplines: one thinks of literary scholar Caroline Spurgeon, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, educational writer Hilda Neatby, and anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. For Jews, too, the situation had massively improved by the ‘60s: the discriminatory quota system was gone, and Jewish intellectuals such as Lionel Trilling and Allan Bloom, as well as members of the Frankfurt School (Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich), had already had a major impact.

But even if Delbanco were correct in his characterization, the charge would still constitute a rhetorical dodge, a classic red herring, for it is not germane to Bawer’s study whether the university of the past was imperfect and exclusionary or not. It is a typical progressivist rebuttal to any conservative criticism to trot out the bad old days. Wrongs in the past do not, it need hardly be said, justify or lessen the severity of wrongs in the present, and Delbanco betrays the weakness of his own position in using such a deflection to attack Bawer.

Another representative leftist tactic deployed by Delbanco is the adoption of the moral high ground. In a review filled with groundless assertions, Delbanco fastens on a statement by Bawer that he finds “dubious”: the comment that “by the late 20th century virtually every young person in America had the opportunity to acquire a real higher education.” The comment (and notice that Bawer says “virtually” and refers only to “opportunity”) is by no means central to the argument—it is merely a generally accepted assertion about modern American life—but Delbanco seizes upon it with sanctimonious triumph: “Tell that,” he fumes delightedly, “to the many young people mired in poverty, damaged by dysfunctional schools, languishing in prison or drowning in debt.”

The hypocrisy of this statement has already been pointed out by Bruce Thornton in his recent Front Page article, but it bears further examination, for no other statement in this short baseless attack so clearly betrays Delbanco’s leftist biases and blinders. Scorning Bawer for this “dubious” assertion, he counters with an emotionally charged salvo so thin on substance that he has to repeat himself (“mired in poverty,” and “drowning in debt”) to make the list of outrages seem more substantial. The statement, which proves nothing about Bawer’s argument (an argument precisely about “dysfunctional” schooling and the ideology that creates it), is a staple liberal filler, an article of faith requiring no proof or reasoning, brought forth to prove the superior moral sensitivities and ethical stance of the arguer. It rests on the canard that higher education is an inalienable right even for the inadequate and the criminal. Delbanco’s choice of the phrase “languishing in prison” to describe a person who has by his own actions disqualified himself from attending university or college rests upon the all-encompassing victim-touting outlook that Bawer has so cogently analyzed. The question of whether adequate resources exist to support disadvantaged students is beyond the scope of Bawer’s book. In focusing on the debilitating nonsense that students encounter in humanities classrooms, Bawer asks whether the university in its current state is worth attending at all. But falling back on a favored leftist talking point—lamenting the victims of America’s supposedly heartless system—Delbanco refuses to address the more fundamental question of whether the academic elite have in fact ruined higher education.

In an article entitled “The Lingo of the Left,” published in PJ Media, David Solway identifies three forms of lying: “omission, exaggeration, and misrepresentation.” In its omission of the substance of Bawer’s critique, gross exaggeration of the university’s presumed turnaround, and misrepresentation of the evidence, Delbanco’s review provides a graphic model of academic mendacity at work. If he were genuinely interested in the life of the mind to which he is ostensibly committed, one would expect something better from him. That he is so unjustifiably flippant and evasive about what is arguably the most pressing academic issue of our time is an all-too-common illustration of the bad faith of leftist intellectuals today.

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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."