Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Les Moonves, Al Franken: the list of high-profile persons who’ve been accused of using their professional power to sexually exploit others continues to grow. One of the most recent additions to the roster is a woman – a lesbian, in fact – whose name may mean nothing to you but who, like Weinstein in Hollywood and Franken on Capitol Hill, has long wielded considerable power within her own professional community. Her name is Avital Ronell, and she’s a 66-year-old “superstar” professor at New York University, where she’s a member of both the Germanic Languages and Literature Department and the Comparative Literature Department, and at the European Graduate School in Switzerland, where she’s on the philosophical faculty.
Ronell’s accuser, a young gay man named Nimrod Reitman, alleges that back in 2012, when he was one of Ronell’s grad students, she sexually assaulted him at her pied à terre in Paris, proceeded to flood his in-box with scores of romantic e-mails, and then, some time later, moved into his Manhattan apartment (and bed) when Hurricane Sandy cut off the electricity to her NYU apartment. When, after his graduation, he finally began resisting her aggressive moves – he says he was too worried about professional retaliation to do so earlier – she allegedly tried to sabotage his career.
A protégée of the late Jacques Derrida, Ronell practices what is known, broadly, as postmodern theory, churning out prose – at once playful, pretentious, and deliberately obscure – that’s meant to be a shot across the bow of the rational post-Enlightenment West. Half a century or so ago, professors in English departments taught literature. Philosophy professors taught the history of philosophy. Their present-day successors, such as Ronell, whom you can put in any and all humanities and social-sciences departments, because they’re all working pretty much the same scam, view themselves as doing something infinitely more consequential than passing on the great ideas of Western civilization.
What they’re doing is the precise opposite: they’re rocking what they see as the very foundations of the West, from Cartesian logic to colonialist hegemony to the supposedly systematic oppression by straight white males of women, blacks, Latinos, “queers,” disabled people, overweight people, “brown people,” and (above all these days) Muslims and transsexuals. In the view of Ronell and her fellow ideologues, women – especially lesbians – are always victims in the evil West. No surprise, then, that Ronell, in response to Reitman’s charges, reflexively played the victim card, telling the Chronicle of Higher Education that accusing a woman like her of sexual exploitation “allows for [the] patriarchy to say, ‘See, there’s a predator woman – they have libidos, too – so now leave us alone so we can go around and have our encounters with 18-year-old girls.”
Around the world, colleagues of Ronell leapt at the chance to go to bat for her, though they didn’t exactly echo her own apologia. One of them, Lisa Duggan, a Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU, responded to the trove of sugary electronic billets-doux supplied by Reitman as evidence of Ronell’s obsession with him by suggesting that just as Ronell’s books are intentionally elusive to the common reader, so are those e-mails. They’re “gay-coded,” articulating “[f]orms of intimacy well outside the parameters of heterosexual (and, homosexual) courtship and marriage.” In other words, if you or I think that Ronell sounds girlishly smitten when she addresses Reitman as “Sweet cuddly Baby” or “my most adored one,” it’s because we’re not sophisticated enough readers.
Meanwhile, in a remarkable letter dated May 11 and addressed to the president and provost of NYU, no fewer than fifty-one members of the international postmodern pantheon came running to Ronell’s defense. Among them: Berkeley’s Judith Butler (who has also defended Hamas and Hezbollah), Ljubljana’s own Slavoj Zizek (who was a Communist under Tito and is still one), and Columbia’s Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (who, when white men lament honor killings, condemns them for trying to “save the brown woman from the brown man”). Most if not all of the letter’s signatories subscribe to one version or other of the postmodern account of Western power relations, and their gigs are all more or less about challenging that power. Yet here are the key passages of their joint missive:
Professor Ronell has changed the course of German Studies, Comparative Literature, and of philosophy and literature….She is responsible for building the field of literary studies…throughout Europe….Her students now teach at leading research institutions in the US, France, and Germany, and her intellectual influence is felt throughout the humanities, including media and technology studies, feminist theory, and comparative literary study…..As you know, she is the Jacques Derrida Chair of Philosophy at the European Graduate School and she was recently given the award of Chevalier of Arts and Letters by the French government.
It’s crystal clear what this letter is about. In a word, power. It’s an appeal to the power of top-level university authorities to squelch an abuse allegation. It’s an attempt to awe those authorities with the power of famous names and impressive affiliations. And it defends Ronell not (as she did) by invoking her purported victim status but by, on the contrary, and with immense irony, emphasizing her mighty position within what her defenders, in their writings and classrooms, would describe as the West’s nefarious power structures.
In short, Ronell’s academic allies were quick to try to wield their collective power, and Ronell’s, to save her from a fair and objective reckoning. They also – no small detail – sought to destroy Reitman, whom they accused (without any hint of proof whatsoever) of mounting a “malicious campaign” against her. In behaving like this, of course, these soi-disant ivory-tower diagnosers of the West’s moral, cultural, and intellectual debilities were no different from the slimy Tinseltown executives, producers, and journalists who, over the decades, conspired to suppress unpleasant rumors about the almighty Harvey Weinstein and to silence one after another of his inconsequential victims.
The good news: NYU has suspended Ronell for a year – not much of a punishment, but better than nothing. Butler, who like Ronell is worshiped in the academy for her calculatedly enigmatic prose, backed off from the NYU letter (which she reportedly composed herself), saying that it had been “written in haste,” that it “ought not to have attributed motives to the complainant,” and that “we should not have used language that implied that Ronell’s status and reputation earn her differential treatment of any kind.” Ha! Remove all that from the NYU letter and there’s nothing left.
Finally, one – count her, one – of Ronell’s former teaching assistants, Andrea Long Chu, actually worked up the nerve to tell a simple and ugly truth that cuts to the heart of the matter and leaves all the special pleading in the dust: for years, according to Chu, Ronell has been known to be chronically “abusive,” not just toward Reitman but toward grad students generally, but is so powerful in her field that until now nobody, victim or bystander, has ever dared to speak up about it. “People I know,” wrote Chu, “are afraid to make any public comment” about the Reitman case, for fear of offending scholars “who might one day control their fates.”
Well, that’s Hollywood, folks – and it’s academia, too. Bottom line: mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be humanities or social-science students, at least not at one of these wildly overrated places like NYU, Berkeley, Stanford, or (needless to say) anything in the Ivy League. As has been repeatedly demonstrated in recent years, the stuff they’re offering these days is intellectually valueless; as this whole episode illustrates, these places are also well-nigh morally bankrupt and drenched in hypocrisy. All in all, frankly, your kids will get infinitely more out of a few hours of Jordan Peterson videos than out of a solid year spent in the loathsome company of the likes of Avital Ronell.