The Bad Faith of Andrew Delbanco

A professor's attack on Bruce Bawer in the New York Times showcases leftist smear tactics.

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planks: that Bawer’s is an “intemperate” “caricature” rather than an informed and informative analysis, and that it is “out of date,” a “rear-guard action against an enemy who has largely ceded the field.”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.

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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