Is the Enemy Us?

CITY JOURNAL 23 November 2012

Embracing—and challenging—Bruce Bawer’s powerful new book

The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind, by Bruce Bawer (Harper Collins, 400 pp., $25.99)

In his new book, Bruce Bawer has proposed an answer to vexing questions: Why has our culture become degraded? Why have our politics become polarized? And why has our public debate coarsened? Bawer locates the source of these misfortunes in the changes that have taken place in American higher education over the last generation—above all, the emergence of multicultural “identity studies.”

The academy, he observes, is “the font of the perfidious multicultural idea and the setting in which it is implanted into the minds of American youth.”

In what must be reckoned a martyrdom operation, Bawer has spent countless hours not only reading the collective oeuvre of the leading luminaries in Black, Women’s, Gender, Queer, Fat, and Chicano Studies, but also traveling America to attend their conferences. At a gathering of the Cultural Studies Association at the University of California, Berkeley, for instance, Bawer encounters the young Michele, who’s “like, a grad student at UC Davis?” She’s “sort of reviving a Gramschian-style Marxism,” involving the idea that global warming is “sort of, like, a crisis, in the human relationship to nature?” Bawer claims that his heart goes out to her. (His heart is bigger than mine.)

This inability of many young Americans to express a simple or even grammatically coherent thought, in Bawer’s view, owes to a variety of academic fads that in the early 1980s captured the American university. One was postmodernism, of course, which traced its roots to the great anthropologists, but from which, alas, was derived a form of crude cultural relativism that achieved the ignominious trifecta of insipidity, incoherence, and blithe ignorance of a philosophical literature treating the idea of relativism from the Sophists to, at the very least, G. E. Moore. From this followed the conclusion that values, such as individual liberty, were not universal, and as the Canadian poet David Solway put it, that we must perforce believe that “[t]here are no barbarians, only different forms of civilized men.”

Then arrived the minor idea of hegemony, conceived by the minor Marxist intellect Antonio Gramsci, who argued that modern liberal democracies are no freer than the most ruthless of totalitarianisms. The oppression was merely unseen. That this idea is absurd—engineers don’t waste energy worrying about plane crashes so subtle that passengers neither notice them nor complain of them—was no obstacle to its advancement. Bawer notes as well the Leninist Paulo Freire, who gave us the common jargon of the contemporary humanities—dialogue, communication, solidarity—and the idea that the point of education is to recognize one’s own oppression so as better to resist it. The Marxist post-colonialist Frantz Fanon completes the intellectual trio.

The chief objective of an education in the humanities today, Bawer argues—with abundant anecdotal evidence to support the claim—is to appreciate that life is all about hegemonic power and to use “theory” to uncover its workings. Depending upon their sex, skin color, or sexual orientation, students are asked to accept as axiomatic that they are either the unconscious instrument of such power or the repository of its collective grievance and victimhood.

It’s common these days—perhaps it has always been—for reviewers to read the first and last chapters of a book and deliver a superficial judgment upon it. Bawer—we’ve never met but have exchanged e-mails, and I consider him a friend—may take comfort in knowing that I’ve read his book several times and thought about it deeply. It is an outstanding work.

Yet I’m not persuaded by his ultimate argument that our cultural rot emanates fundamentally from the universities. In the first place, these very universities also—still—produce the world’s deepest study of the humanities. Is it fair to associate, say, the Southern Oregon University Center for Shakespeare Studies with the aforementioned stammering bimbo, Michele? Does the syllabus of Miami University’s “Dostoevsky as a Social Philosopher” suggest any preoccupation with Frantz Fanon? This is perhaps not Bawer’s point, but given his conclusion—that parents have been categorically deceived in placing their faith in higher education—it is not unreasonable to point out that many American universities still provide an outstanding introduction to the traditional canon.

Our universities, to be sure, inspire more than their portion of cant and self-indulgent fatuousness. But these maladies are neither limited to the universities nor necessarily the source of our larger laments. In fact, perhaps the phenomena he describes are merely a symptom.

I have other suspicions—none that I can prove—about the answers to Bawer’s questions. The structure and economics of the post–Cold War media environment, for example, give cause for alarm. Indeed, the results of the destruction of the traditional cartel media have shaken my faith in market freedom: Americans don’t strike me as better-informed than they were in the Cold War era. The profound crisis of national confidence engendered by America’s failure to improve the world in the wake of September 11 is perhaps also part of the picture. Then there are Facebook, Twitter, and Google, which have inadvertently created an electorate able, should it choose—and apparently it does—to read only the news that confirms its political instincts. This, too, has contributed to polarization and ignorance.

Might the blame for our cultural coarsening be shared, say, with the advent of television and the Internet, the growing national obsession with crude, violent music and sports or the decline of censorship? It is dismaying for a civil libertarian to contemplate these hypotheses. Yet it’s dismaying, too, to imagine that intellectuals might rule them out simply because they’re unpleasant to contemplate.

I don’t know what precisely the problem is, only that there is a problem. But having observed this condition from abroad—as Bawer has—I can think of only one place that would allow me to study the issue at leisure, in peace, and in depth: the universities.

None of this, of course, makes me yearn to spend time among the Fat Studiers. But they remain the outliers; they are a trend; and they are unlikely to produce much of value. Reading the works on the comparative literature syllabus at the California State University, Long Beach, on the other hand, will surely do those students quite a bit of good.

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