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All of these studies, Bawer avers, exist in a kind of “bizarre academic time warp” in which adherents deny American social progress and cling ever more tenaciously to narratives of suffering. Moreover, their overt contempt for the purported enemy—whether mainstream American society in general or Christian heterosexual white men in particular—reveals the limits of their vaunted tolerance. Bawer refers to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s sneering dismissal of what she calls “heterosexual male self-pity,” pointing out that her hatred would be unacceptable if directed at any other group. That many academics are more concerned with establishing chic credentials than advancing the well-being of their fellows was starkly revealed when queer theorist Judith Butler expressed admiration, in 2010, for Hamas and Hezbollah, and denounced a gay organization in Germany for—wait for it—its supposed Islamophobia in criticizing Muslim violence against gay men. The Ivory Tower arrogance of her stance spoke far more clearly than her tortured prose.
Bawer is the ideal person to have written this book. A PhD in English literature who decided not to pursue an academic career, he is perfectly positioned to dissect the complicated rhetoric of these disciplines and to explain their founding texts and assumptions. Particularly helpful is his ability to expose with wit and common sense the bad faith and self-indulgence of what passes for elite knowledge in the modern academy, only a few examples of which I have been able to highlight, but which make his book absorbing from first to last. His extensive documentation and elegant analysis build to his Emperor-has-no-clothes conclusion about the intellectual vacuity at the heart of the Humanities today. Attending one of a number of conferences in which callow youth present banalities as if they were insights, he reflects that “Most of the people presenting papers at this conference are junior professors or graduate students who, by all indications, have only the most rudimentary familiarity with history, literature, philosophy, or any other legitimate field of learning. They haven’t been educated in anything—they’ve only been trained to mimic their teachers’ jargon and given license to pronounce on things about which they know next to nothing.” This damning summation has been amply prepared.
If all of this were merely (merely!) a matter of higher education, it would be dismal enough. But as Bawer persuasively contends, the effects are far-reaching, the emphasis on victims having not only corrupted education but “increasingly weakened the fabric of American civil society, the shared culture that has made America great.” Students are not learning their history—the few slogans and ideas they imbibe merely slander the West in broad strokes—and they have no sense of the extraordinary privileges they enjoy in a free country or why they have them. The only thing they have learned thoroughly is an ignorant contempt for their own culture. For Bawer, this situation represents a betrayal of these young people’s heritage: “The people who ‘teach’ these postmodern subjects talk about power, but what they have done as alleged educators is as despicable an abuse of power as one could imagine—because they have used their power to rob young people of their priceless legacy as heirs to the riches of human civilization.”
Although he finds a few glimmers of hope—some skeptical students interested in genuine learning, internet sites that counter academic propaganda, and a few stalwart professors teaching real subjects—Bawer concludes that we are still very much caught in the Identity Studies debacle and that concerted action by parents and administrators will be necessary, though perhaps not sufficient, to bring about change. One can be fairly confident that few academics will rally to the cause. In his recent New York Times review, for example, Andrew Delbanco dismisses The Victims’ Revolution as a “deliberately intemperate book” and “mostly a caricature” with only a “modicum of truth,” contending that Bawer is fighting a phantom enemy that no longer holds the field. This is grossly inaccurate, especially given that Bawer’s study bristles with statistics, direct citations of conference presentations, and detailed close readings of major Identity Studies texts. A patient and comprehensive document, it should be required reading for every humanities student at a North American university.
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