In Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom (2009), Bruce Bawer told a grim tale of the surrender of parts of Europe to radical Islam. He showed how through a combination of multicultural orthodoxy and not-unfounded fear, politicians and members of the liberal intelligentsia have given in to the demands of Jihadists, sacrificing freedom of expression and other civil liberties to mollify Muslim sensitivities. The book amasses many disturbing examples, which Bawer dissects cogently. Now, in his new book, The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind, Bawer has chosen what seems a less terrifying story, concerned not with riots, death threats, and medieval-style executions, but with the oft-impenetrable verbal pyrotechnics of academia.
Although much of the so-called scholarship he examines is indeed frivolous, Bawer’s study is a serious one, an extension of his political concerns into the academic arena. The Victims’ Revolution examines the toxic core—Identity Studies—from which the poisons of political correctness have leached into the body politic. It is not an entirely new subject, of course. Compelling exposés of the Leftist takeover of the academy have been published by such fine critics as David Horowitz, Stanley Fish, and Richard L. Cravatts, but Bawer’s intensive focus on the partisan ideological content of Identity Studies is unprecedented and necessary. One of Bawer’s most important insights is his clarification of how academic discourse can be at once almost entirely divorced from the reality of which it pretends to speak while also devastatingly real in its consequences.
Bawer’s central thesis is that to understand the moral and political confusion at the heart of Western life today, in which many voices are eager to denounce the most open, tolerant, and vibrant civilization ever created and to romanticize violence and thuggery as a cure, one must look first to our schools, and especially to higher education. For the past 30 years, there has been brewing in humanities classrooms a murky stew of sexual rebellion, hatred of democratic capitalism, and contempt for the institutions and traditions of American society. As Bawer shows, young people since the 1980s have undergone an intensive indoctrination to despise their country. In particular, women, people of color, and homosexuals have been trained to see themselves not as individuals with a stake in America’s collective future but as members of victim groups with the right to far-reaching compensation for their perceived injuries, which are dwelt upon to the exclusion of all else in courses that combine self-help therapy with Marxist and other revolutionary dogmas.
In these courses, the world is divided into oppressor and oppressed, the West and the (victimized) rest, and logic is turned on its head. Students in Women’s Studies are taught that there is no material difference between women’s treatment in the United States and their treatment in, say, Pakistan, where honor killings are common. In fact, such students are trained not to consider the women of Pakistan at all, except in relation to American imperialism, for to pronounce on Muslim women’s oppression is to declare oneself an Islamophobe. Black and Chicano Studies teach that the only authentic form of minority identity is grounded in grievance and defiance. The United States is portrayed as one of the most cruel and racist societies in the world. Such structures of thought and feeling, Bawer argues, have seriously affected the ability of young Americans to fairly assess their country’s achievements and to make appropriate decisions about its future.
How did such a state of affairs arise? In each chapter, which focuses on a different form of Identity Studies, Bawer traces the process by which the legitimate scholarly and social aims of various liberation movements, some such as Black Studies with an impressive pedigree, were fatally weakened by power politics and the rarefied conditions of academic life. During the period these programs were being established, an ideological battle was fought between the assimilationists, who wanted their concerns to be integrated into the disciplines and to employ traditional evidence-based scholarship, and the radical separatists, who saw no valid distinction between political advocacy and scholarship, and who wanted to forge a revolutionary coalition on the Left. The conflict was decided in favor of the radical separatists even as the more moderate assimilationists were increasingly winning over the general public. In time, the radicals’ fondness for extreme political positions became an orthodoxy, coupled with an all-but-unreadable writing style.
As a result of this history, tenured radicals now pursue their careers amidst manifold contradictions. While enjoying unprecedented liberty, prosperity, and security in their own lives, they persist in seeing themselves as heroic victims at war with a brutal enemy, believing that tactics of name-calling and evidence-tampering are justified in their circumstances. They talk of ‘otherness’ as a vital good that should not be surrendered, with no sense that what they regard as co-optation by bourgeois hegemony—going about one’s normal life without engaging in radical protest—is something that women and minorities around the world, often targeted for violence, can only dream of. And while priding themselves on their rebellion, they are deeply conformist in the narrow range of theories and arguments they employ.
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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