In recent days, America has produced an astounding spectacle. Americans desecrated and demanded removal of their own statues to their own heroes, including African Americans who fought for the Union; Hans Christian Heg, a Norwegian immigrant and dedicated abolitionist who modeled courage and gave his life in the Civil War; Taduesz Kosciuszko, the Polish-born designer of West Point who left money in his will to purchase freedom for American slaves; the World War II Memorial to the men and women who actually did fight fascism; and the Emancipation Memorial, a monument paid for by freed slaves, dedicated in a speech by Frederick Douglass, and the first American monument to feature an African American. In Iran, mullahs gloated that Americans themselves were now chanting “Death to America.”
Black Lives Matter proponents claimed, “It’s just property, easily replaced.” No one said “It’s just property, easily replaced” when arsonists burned black churches, and no one would say that had vandals spray painted a pig and the f-word, not on a statue to Kosciuszko, but on the MLK monument. Clearly, the vandals knew that they were, piece by piece, no less than Chinese communists bulldozing Tibetan monasteries or Nazis dynamiting synagogues, engaging in acts of anti-American cultural genocide.
What inspired young Americans to go on this feverish rampage against the people who lived for, fought for, and died for the justice and equality that rioters claimed to support? Many blamed American education. I could relate.
Years ago, I was a new PhD looking for a job. I received rejection letters mentioning hundreds of qualified applicants. I was desperate. A very kind department chair offered me a part-time assignment.
I received the class textbook: Race, Class, and Gender in the United States by Paula S. Rothenberg. The book is “required reading at over 1,000 colleges.” Rothenberg’s “publisher estimates that her books have reached well over half a million students.” I couldn’t wait to plunge into its almost 700 influential pages, and to map out how I’d communicate its hefty contents to my students.
I began to experience a nameless discomfort immediately upon reading the preface to the anthology. Rothenberg talks about events, persons, and trends that any intelligent person might recognize as unconnected. These include environmentalism, Nelson Mandela serving time in prison, smoking on airplanes, and surgeries intended to “reassign” gender. I wondered what scholarly discipline qualified Rothenberg to expatiate on these diverse topics.
Rothenberg anoints herself with the authority to bring these diverse puzzle pieces together. Her unifying thread is the destructive privilege enjoyed by white, heterosexual, Christian, American men. Her authority is derived from her virtuous desire to overturn these men’s hegemony, and to free the oppressed from their chains.
A blue-collar child of immigrants, I had learned in academia, from Alan Dundes, my mentor, that scholarship requires disciplined focus, a proven set of topic-specific research tools, and certified membership in a community. Any average Joe might have an opinion about, say, virus replication, but unless you’ve spent your life studying virus replication, unless you are using the tried-and-true tools for analysis of virus replication, and unless you’ve been admitted to the community of others engaged in the same study, your opinion about virus replication really doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
Dundes demanded that his scholars master at least two languages. If you are going to make sweeping generalizations about the human condition, you require intimate knowledge of at least one other, non-American culture. A true scholar never falls into the error, Dundes pointed out, of saying something like, “The folktale Cinderella proves that Americans … ” Cinderella is an international folktale, told from ninth-century China to Medieval Italy to Walt Disney. If you want to use Cinderella to make a point about America or Americans, you must find what feature is unique in American tellings of the tale.
Paula Rothenberg never received a PhD, as she recounts in her memoir, Invisible Privilege: A Memoir about Race, Class, and Gender. She worked for a while on a dissertation addressing Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory of truth. Rothenberg was studying philosophy, not sociology, anthropology, history, or statistics. I could find no theory, and no academic bona fides, that qualified Rothenberg to make the sweeping generalizations she makes about America or Americans.
Though on different topics, many of the otherwise disjointed works in the Rothenberg anthology feature a protagonist obsessed with personal unhappiness, and locating the source of that unhappiness in malicious, heterosexual, white, American men. Maz Jobrani could not find work in Hollywood. Clearly, this was because white men would not allow a Muslim to thrive as an actor. Noy Thrupkaew insists that white men conspire to oppress poor Asian-Americans by praising the academic successes of well-off Asian Americans. Male-to-female transgender person Susan Stryker rages against “hegemonic” words like “man” and “woman.” Stryker chafes to “pull down the patriarchy.” Stryker’s life is full of pain: “To the extent that I am perceived as a woman … I experience the same misogyny as other women, and to the extent that I am perceived as a man … I experience the homophobia directed toward gay men.” Sharlene Hesse-Biber attributed a student’s bulimia to the fact that “Guys don’t like fat girls.” Fat girls, poor Asian-Americans, transgender persons, Muslim actors, all are in pain because of oppressive white men.
Patriarchy or patriarchal are mentioned 36 times in the book, white supremacy or supremacist, 29 times, white privilege, 55 times, racism or racist 506 times, variations of oppression 233 times. The phrase white men appears 31 times. White men “have control;” they constitute “the ruling group.” White men never “do dirty work.” White men never feel “haunting fears” or “deep shame.” Rather, white men enjoy “the manhood of racism, sexism, and homophobia.”
Rothenberg’s anthology, she tells us, “views the problems facing our country and our communities as structural, and seeks to contribute to the conversation about fairness and justice.” What is that structure that, as she puts it, is “destroying lives and families”? Rothenberg’s answer: “patriarchy and white privilege.” Her job is to “explore the interlocking nature of these systems of oppression as they work in combination and impact virtually every aspect of life in U.S. society today.” “Intersectionality,” she says, is a term that “captures the complexity of multiple and simultaneous forms of oppression.” All the previously mentioned bad things, from Mandela’s prison term to smoking on airplanes, have been “hierarchically constructed” to advantage white, heterosexual men.
When addressing the success of Asians in America, Rothenberg makes clear that that success, like everything else in America, has been manipulated by the unseen hand of white, heterosexual, American men. Asians have not succeeded; rather, the all-powerful white man has “racially positioned” Asians differently than how he has “racially positioned” African Americans. Similarly, the white man manipulates media to “stereotype” Muslims as terrorists. There is no real Muslim terrorist; there are no victims to jihad terror. There is only the white man manipulating media to harm Muslims.
Every student at the university must take this class, because white men’s privilege has blinded us all, and without the class, we would go through life metaphorically walking into walls. Rothenberg reassures the reader, “It is impossible to make sense out of either the past or the present without using race, class, gender, and sexuality … Much of what passes for a neutral perspective across the disciplines and in cultural life smuggles in elements of class, race, and gender bias and distortion. Because the so-called neutral point of view is so pervasive, it is often difficult to identify … Learning to identify and employ race, class, and gender as fundamental categories of description and analysis is essential if we wish to understand our own lives and the lives of others.”
We can’t go through life seeing people as just people. We must see them as representatives of their skin color and other identities. Rothenberg will instruct us. “We should never lose sight of the fact that any particular individual has an ethnic background, a class location, an age, a sexual orientation, a religious orientation, a gender, and that all these characteristics are inseparable from the person.”
We must never fool ourselves into thinking that we are aware of reality. In fact, Rothenberg will tell us what reality is. What we had thought of as “reality,” she puts in scare quotes. Her opinions expressed in her book actually are reality, without quotation marks. “Racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism operate on a basic level to structure what we come to think of as ‘reality’ … Differences may appear to be ‘natural’ or given in nature, they are in fact socially constructed” to form “systems of oppression.” We must jettison the idea that the “United States extends liberty and justice and equal opportunity for all.” What will disabuse us of this foolish notion? “The reality presented in these pages.” Note the lack of quotation marks around that use of the word reality.
Losing faith in America might depress some students, Rothenberg acknowledges. Never fear! Rothenberg is also Glinda, the Good Witch. She presents the reader with “examples of people working together to bring about social change. The task is enormous, time is short, and our collective future is at stake.”
Rothenberg’s story, from the bad old days when white, heterosexual, Christian, American men screwed over everyone else on the planet, to the bright future where people work together to bring about social change, is told in the language of progress. She uses terms like “still.” People still oppose gay marriage! People still smoke on airplanes! But humanity is marching towards an inevitable progress. Every day, in every way, humanity is getting better and better. We’ve had a black president! We almost had a woman president! Progress is to be measured by how far away we get from white men, and how close we come to their opposite number: people of color, women, and handicapped and transgendered people.
The degree to which such ideas now dominate education cannot be underestimated. Douglas Murray wrote in 2019 that identity politics have penetrated even into the hard sciences as taught in elementary school. He cites Seattle Public Schools K-12 Math Studies Framework which includes the following, “Power and oppression … are the ways in which individuals and groups define mathematical knowledge so as to see ‘Western’ mathematics as the only legitimate expression of mathematical identity and intelligence. This definition of legitimacy is then used to disenfranchise people and communities of color. This erases the historical contributions of people and communities of color.” Yes, this is woke math instruction for kindergartners through twelfth graders.
How do students react to this kind of education? On social media, I came across a group of recent college graduates discussing their experience of the class I had been hired to teach. With their permission, I repost their conversation here.
“The class was the single biggest load of crap ever. I found it extremely offensive to all ethnic groups. The class did however teach me the most important skill in life, just say what people want to hear at all times, contain all actual feelings, and you will be fine. ‘Know your audience.'”
The message of the class, he said, was, “If you aren’t white, you suck at life and should basically kill yourself because there is nothing you can do in life to improve tomorrow. If you are white, go kill yourself you dirty capitalist pig Nazi and try not to rape any women before you do it.”
A second person posted: “That class was the biggest waste of time, energy and paper … Trees did not deserve to die for this class to exist.”
A third poster: “I was kicked out of that class once, and for no reason either.”
The first poster asked, “Did you try to express your opinion?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “I shared an experience I had.”
Another asked, “Was it a story of you experiencing racism? If so, that’s probably why. White people never experience any type of racism of any kind. As a Jewish kid, when I saw a swastika drawn on my locker, you know what I did? Nothing, because I had a feeling there was no point.”
Though Rothenberg’s books enjoy many positive reviews on Amazon, her negative Amazon reviews echo the impression shared by the young men quoted above. One Amazon reviewer writes, “White people are demonized. Males are emasculated and belittled. The word ‘normal’ is used, quotations included, as an actual insult. To be an upstanding member of society who happens to be White, male or Christian is, according to Rothenberg, a very real crime, worthy of very real punishment … this book should be treated not only as a piece of blatant propaganda that would make the Führer blush, but as a warning: Americans, if you’re ‘normal,’ if you’re self-respecting and decent in any way, but you just so happen to be male, Christian or especially White, they ARE coming for you.”
Another reviewer writes, “Purely a Marxist totalitarian charade with extremely one-sided analogies. To Paula Rothenberg; if you hate the U.S.A. and freedom, then leave it for a communist country!”
And another, universities “force this bias down the throats of the unknowing students who are only reading the book to pass the class. The articles within this book are ONLY focused on the leftist views of race, class, and gender … If I have to read this book (which I did), I’d like to see some rebuttals, or some OTHER viewpoints.”
Her fellow scholars have also taken issue with Rothenberg’s book. Professor Julius G. Getman is a noted labor historian and attorney. In his 2011 University of Texas Press book, In the Company of Scholars, Getman points out that the materials Rothenberg chose for her anthology “present a single point of view: women and people of color as innocent victims, white males as oppressors.” Rothenberg’s definition of racism, that makes it impossible for anyone who is not white to be a racist, is “elitist,” “patronizing,” “racist,” and “factually in error.” Getman says, though, that “A good course can be taught using a slanted text so long as the slanting is recognized and compensated for by the instructor.”
It wasn’t just the book’s slant that discomfited me. I deeply value separation of church and state and the sanctity of the individual conscience. I didn’t want anyone telling me what to believe, and for me it would be a sin to use my paltry power as a professor to impose my ethics on my students. I cherished my ideal of the Ivory Tower: The Ivory Tower was for discovering objective truths. The Church guided me on the moral way to handle those truths, but it was not for me to force anyone into my church.
Rothenberg’s book contains the word “should” 180 times. “Asian Americans should participate in racial justice struggles.” “We should never lose sight of the ethnic background” of people we meet. We “should” describe ourselves as experiencing “internalized sexism.” The word “black” “should be capitalized.”
This book was not empowering students with neutral knowledge obtained and arranged in a scholarly manner that they could choose to use to build the lives they wanted. This book, rather, was the scripture of a religion, that was indoctrinating students in how they should live their lives. If they did not mouth, however insincerely, Rothenberg’s shahada, they would not pass, and they would not acquire the degrees for which they were paying.
That professors teach this book in a manipulative and coercive way is demonstrated on the web. One syllabus requires that students give the teacher a detailed autobiography. In subsequent assignments, students are to self-identify as “how you fit into both oppressor and oppressed group.” Many such online assignments sound like “struggle sessions,” where students are required to share intimate details of their private lives, only for those details to be used later to categorize them as oppressors or the oppressed, whether they wanted to be so categorized or not. Struggle sessions are tools of psychological manipulation, not scholarship.
Not just the book’s slant, nor its moral coercion, concerned me. I was also gravely troubled by the vacuum into which its contents were to be injected. My students had not been prepared by grammar school, high school, or other college classes to assess the book’s assertions. They lacked training in scholarly skills, and they lacked raw knowledge of basic facts. My students thought that the Atlantic Slave Trade was the only slave trade that had ever existed. They thought they knew everything about the Crusades, to wit: Christian Europeans during the Middle Ages decided to invade Muslim lands and force Muslims to become Christian. They believed that contemporary terror attacks, like 9-11, were somehow justified revenge for the Crusades.
Students had no knowledge, at all, that the Crusades were preceded by hundreds of years of warfare by Muslims against Christian populations in the Middle East and Europe. They became astounded if I shared with them the information in Dr Bill Warner’s dynamic battle map showing the hundreds of battles and slave raids jihadis prosecuted against formerly Christian lands like Syria, Egypt, and Turkey, as well as Spain, Italy, and France. They were shocked when I told them that Muslims lived under Christian rulers in the Middle East and often were not pressured to convert to Christianity.
They had no idea that anyone, anywhere, had ever died in the introduction of communism. Once I told them that, yes, people died, I invited them to guess numbers. When I told them that one good estimate was 100 million, they were floored. They would often say, “Why hasn’t anyone ever told us this?”
I would ask my students, “What group of people did the Nazis, as part of an organized program, mass murder first and last?”
Students would always guess “Jews.”
When I told them that the first and last group that Nazis murdered as part of an organized program were handicapped people, they were uncomprehending. They thought that Nazis mass murdering Jews was an expression of Christian anti-Semitism. They had no real understanding of Nazism.
I faced a quandary. I needed the job. I genuinely loved my boss and wanted to please her. I also did not want to undermine the university’s intentions with the course. I was being paid to teach X. So I decided to teach X. I assigned works from Rothenberg’s anthology. I made a few adjustments, though.
I told my students that they were permitted, indeed, expected, to express any opinion they wanted in class, as long as they did so in an academically respectable way. Name-calling and other incivility would not be allowed. I assured my students that their grades would have nothing to do with their opinions. I told them that truth is the north star, and that real scholarship provides tools for them to get as close to truth as possible.
The student reaction to this policy both touched and saddened me. Students told me that my class was special and unique because they were allowed to say what they thought. They told me of being ejected from, harassed in, or failing, other classes because they expressed their opinion.
I told them that a major component of the class would be a research paper, and that we would work together using time-tested methods of academic research. I created a guide, “How to Write a Research Paper.” They would pick the topic, and they could reach any conclusion that the evidence they unearthed suggested to them.
Many students had no idea how to conduct academic research. No idea how to formulate a question, how to access peer-reviewed sources, or even what peer-reviewed sources were, or how to differentiate between fact and opinion. Their initial attempts were often impassioned screeds emphatically stating their opinion, and advocating what other people should do. I told them that it wasn’t their job, as scholars, to write rabble-rousing purple prose, or to preach a sermon telling other people what they should do. I said it was their job to discover, synthesize, and report, in clear prose, objective facts. They said they’d always gotten good grades on such papers in the past.
Not a few students told me that this class feature was one of their favorite assignments in their college career. They had the opportunity to discover more about something that mattered to them.
One student, an African American woman named “Angie,” told me she wanted to write a paper proving that the use of Ebonics in academic settings helps black students. Over the weeks of the project, as she performed her research, I could see her mind challenged by what she was discovering. For her original research, she wrote two job application letters, one in Ebonics, and one in standard English. She showed the letters to potential employers. The employers told her that they would prefer to hire the author of the letters written in Standard English. Angie’s confrontation with objective facts changed her mind about the topic. She sent me an email years after having been my student, thanking me for the impact my teaching had on her life.
In addition to the above class policies, I did the following.
I told my students about Polish Haitians. Napoleon brought Poles to Haiti to suppress the world’s first successful slave uprising that resulted in a new country controlled by former slaves. Most of the Poles died of yellow fever. Of those that survived, many, true to the Polish tradition of “For Your Freedom and Ours,” fought beside the slaves for their freedom. Their descendants, many of them blue-eyed, survive in Haiti to this day.
I told them about William Wilberforce, John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, all influential opponents of slavery. I told them about Ben Franklin’s co-founding of an anti-slavery society before America was even a country. I told them about Levi and Catherine Coffin, two of the hundreds of Americans who created and maintained the Underground Railroad. I quoted from the letters of average Union soldiers who fought and died to end slavery. For example, “citizen soldier” Alvin Coe Voris wrote, “God’s terrible wrath must be visited upon the authors of the abominable crime of American slavery.” I told them about the unbroken chain of inspiration stretching from Henry David Thoreau to Leo Tolstoy to Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King.
I told them about Julius Rosenwald, a child of Jewish immigrants who worked in the rag trade from the time he was 16. He made a fortune and dedicated that fortune to the uplift of African Americans. He funded Booker T. Washington, enabling his career. He underwrote more than five thousand schools, shops, and teacher homes for African Americans.
A diehard Jersey girl, I told them, of course, about Frank Sinatra, and his public and private activism to end Jim Crow. Nelson Rockefeller funded Martin Luther King, once handing his aide, Clarence Jones, a suitcase jammed with $100,000 in cash. White Americans didn’t just give money to the Civil Rights Movement. Viola Liuzzo, a dirt-poor coal-miner’s daughter and married mother of five, gave her life; she was shot to death for her activism. The Rev. James Reeb was clubbed to death. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were two more white Civil Rights martyrs. My students had never heard of them, nor had they ever heard of any of the people or movements mentioned above. What they had read about, in their anthology, was whites as oppressive racists.
We talked about the Muslim Slave Trade. According to Prof. John Azumah,
“While the mortality rate of the slaves being transported across the Atlantic was as high as 10%, the percentage of the slaves dying in transit in the Tran-Saharan and East African slave market was a staggering 80 to 90%. While almost all the slaves shipped across the Atlantic were for agricultural work, most of the slaves destined for the Muslim Middle East were for sexual exploitation as concubines in harems and for military service. While many children were born to the slaves in the Americas, the millions of their descendants are citizens in Brazil and the United States today. Very few descendants of the slaves who ended up in the Middle East survived. While most slaves who went to the Americas could marry and have families, most of the male slaves destined for the Middle East were castrated, and most of the children born to the women were killed at birth.” While about 388,000 enslaved Africans were brought to the US, “a minimum of 28 million Africans were enslaved in the Muslim Middle East. Since at least 80% of those captured by the Muslim slave traders were calculated to have died before reaching the slave markets, it is believed that the death toll from 1,400 years of Arab and Muslim slave raids into Africa could have been as high as 112 million.”
We talked about some other difficult topics. The Armenian Genocide, the Cambodian Genocide, and the Rwandan Genocide. We talked about Darfur, Biafra, and China’s occupation of Tibet. They had thought that “genocide” was something that white people do. Turkey, they learned, has yet to acknowledge that the Armenian Genocide ever happened, and it charged its Nobel-Prize-winning novelist, Orhan Pamuk, with a crime for so much as mentioning it. We talked, briefly and not in detail, about Imperial Japan’s unspeakable war crimes. Scholar Brian Victoria showed that Imperial Japan used Zen Buddhism to justify its crimes. They had thought that only white Christians capture, torture, and perform obscene medical experiments on helpless victims.
We talked about Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the ironically named “Minister for Family Welfare and the Advancement of Women.” She was the first woman to be charged with “genocidal rape.” She ordered her Rwandan troops, “before you kill the women, you need to rape them.” Spiked plants were used.
I introduced my students, albeit briefly, to this dark material for a scholarly reason. The Rothenberg approach castigates America for having had slavery. Rothenberg breaks Alan Dundes’ simple rule of scholarship. You can’t use Cinderella to make a sweeping generalization about America, because Cinderella is told around the world. If you want to use that tale, or any cultural product, to make a statement about a culture, you must determine what differentiates the American expression of Cinderella, or any other cultural product from other, international versions.
Rothenberg refuses to take the simple scholarly step of asking, What makes America’s slavery history unique? White Americans are the only people who could have owned slaves who fought a bloody, devastating war to end slavery and to free their enslaved brothers and sisters, and they did so with Christian and American ideals as their inspiration. In contrast, Slavery is still practiced around the world. It was outlawed in Saudi Arabia only in 1962, and in Muslim Mauritania only in 2007. In June, 2020, an anti-slavery activist told the BBC that slavery is still widespread in Mauritania.
In Rothenberg’s text, only whites hate, and whites only ever hate, and never help, and non-whites are only, ever, powerless victims. By introducing students to the above facts, I hoped that they would realize that the story is not “Whitie must be erased for the good of mankind,” but rather an older story, the problem of evil that exists in every heart, behind every skin tone, in every era. In wrestling with the problem of evil myself, I found my solution in Christ. I hoped that they would find their own solution.
Black Lives Matter rioters tearing down statues and their media allies are acting out the selective outrage that Rothenberg inscribed and modeled in her text. In Rothenberg’s book, and in modern liberal media, only whites hate, whites only hate, and never help, and non-whites are only, ever, powerless victims. Truth is that which serves the party. Neither Rothenberg nor National Public Radio penetrate Islam’s many and canonical supports for still-extant slavery. Scholar David Wood has thoroughly exposed the anti-black racism and its support for slavery, including sex slavery, inscribed in Islam from its earliest and most sacred texts. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here … and too many others to mention. NPR produced, on July 1, 2020, a broadcast linking white supremacy to Christianity. In leftist media and academia, it is always, only, white, Christian Americans who do bad things. There is no universal problem of evil that we must all confront and deal with, regardless of our skin color or gender. Thus, no universal solution must be sought. Humiliating, disempowering, or getting rid of whitie is enough. “White lives don’t matter … Abolish whiteness,” said Cambridge professor Priyamvada Gopal. After which, she was immediately promoted.
“Say his name! George Floyd!” BLM orders us. BLM also orders us to flush down the memory hole names like Justine Ruszczyk, Genesis Rincon, Jazmine Barnes, Brandon Hendricks, or Amaria Jones. Victims of black shooters must be erased, along with statues to Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.
This isn’t just about fairness or patriotism. It’s about scholarship. To focus on slavery in America and to leave students, who have spent an entire semester and a lot of cash to take a class completely unaware of the much larger Muslim slave trade, is to trash any concept of scholarship.
Like Rothenberg, I did not want to leave my students depressed. I told them that I had the solutions to all the dark material we were plowing through. I said I had it right on my desk, and if they’d close their eyes for a moment, I would lift it up and show it to them. They closed their eyes, and I lifted the solution for them to see. I was, of course, holding up a mirror.
I told them that no matter what world problem perturbed them, there were others out there working on it. I listed a few such organizations on the blackboard, including those fighting slavery, female infanticide, illiteracy, and environmental degradation. I told them that when I feel sad about the state of the world, I donate some money.
I offered a quote, “The love of a single heart can make a world of difference.” The author of this quote is Immaculée Ilibagiza. During the Rwandan genocide, she had to hide in a three foot by four foot bathroom for three months with seven other women. Ilibagiza is a devout Catholic. I did not mention her Catholicism to my students. I did not want to proselytize them, only to let them know something. I wanted my students to know that some who have been through the darkest night have managed to survive, thrive, and share their light with others. I wanted my students to know that that kind of personal power is rooted not in self-pity, not in resentment, not in rage or vengeance or the rush to destroy, or self-definition as a perpetual victim. I wanted my students to know that that power is rooted in forgiveness, hope, love, and the drive to nurture and create. And I wanted them to know that that was a choice open to them.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery
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