The Collapse of Reason

Nutty profs, bible thumpers square off in post-ideological Dunciad


At a time when conservatives dominate all three branches of government and hold an increasingly large share of the Fourth Estate, the academy remains the last liberal stronghold. You would think, then, that liberal intellectuals would offer some thoughtful and productive critiques of conservative policies. But instead, argues one leading liberal intellectual, the academic left is making itself irrelevant by embracing ideological extremism and trying to purge its ranks of those who are not politically correct.

This claim is made by Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University , in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. As an example of the self-destruction of the academic left, Gitlin cites two recent books, The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual by Eric Lott and Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right by Timothy Brennan, in both of which he himself is attacked as a heretic, among other things, for supporting Israel's right to exist.

Gitlin cites some choice nuggets from the nutty professors. For instance, Brennan, who teaches comparative literature and English at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, asserts that while "the crimes committed in the name of communism are real," they are "certainly no match for the atrocities launched by liberal capitalism, which, far from being officially acknowledged, are completely disavowed or excused."

Gitlin laments that, at a time when many leaders of the party in power embrace attitudes hostile to individual freedom, science, reason, and free inquiry—the legacy of the 18th-century philosophical revolution known as the Enlightenment—liberal intellectuals offer no meaningful alternative. He concludes that "the academic left is nowhere today" and matters mainly to right-wing liberal-bashers who inflate its importance.

I don't agree with all of Gitlin's indictment of conservatism and conservative policies, and I am far from a fan of some ideas that he wants liberal intellectuals to promote. Yet he has a point about the rise of reactionary attitudes on the right—attitudes that a principled liberalism should be in a position to counter. Instead, the intellectuals of the left make it all too easy for people like Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly to mock academics as "pinheads" who spend most of their time in what O'Reilly likes to call "la-la land." How can anyone, for example, take academic feminists seriously when they are discussing whether Newton's physics is a metaphor for rape or whether logic is inherently biased against women?

Indeed, long before the current wave of conservative attacks on the legacy and values of the Enlightenment, many left-wing academics were deriding reason, freedom, and tolerance as bourgeois prejudices and scholarly objectivity as a smokescreen for the white, male point of view. Instead of championing individual rights, the academic left began to promote the "identity politics" of defining people by race, gender and sexual orientation. Some feminist professors are so afraid of appearing to champion Western values that they will balk at "culturally insensitive" criticism of the oppression of women in much Islamic culture today.

But there is a parallel problem on the right. In the 1990s, many conservatives defended both science and Enlightenment values against attacks from the academic left. The 1994 book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, which championed traditional science against assaults from radical feminism, radical environmentalism, Afrocentrism, and other far-left ideologies, received positive responses from National Review and Commentary.

Yet, in a preface to the 1998 softcover edition, Gross and Levitt noted the reemergence of creationism and stated that if they were writing the book at that point, "the 'academic right' would have to join the academic left in its subtitle, and there would have to be a chapter on 'Intelligent Design Theory' "as one of the pseudo-scientific ideologies threatening science.

Today, assaults on evolution frequently find a platform in respectable conservative publications. So do attacks on secularism and the separation of church and state. As Gitlin notes, many conservatives assert that the American Republic was founded not on the principles of the Enlightenment but as a "Christian nation."

On the right or the left, reason-based and reality-based politics are increasingly hard to find.