Liberal Intolerance and the Firing of Naomi Schaefer Riley

Left-wing academics silence a critic.


There is much handwringing today, both from liberals and disaffected conservatives, about the deplorable intellectual climate on the right: blinkered ideology, disdain for facts, demonization of opponents. Sure enough, such behavior is depressingly common. But does the left behave differently when its sacred cows are being gored?

For a stark reminder that "liberal intolerance" is real, look at the brouhaha over Naomi Schaefer Riley's ejection from the Chronicle of Higher Education blog, Brainstorm. A moderately conservative journalist and author, Riley joined the site's left-dominated roster of bloggers in early 2011. On April 30, she made a post titled "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations." The piece was prompted by a recent Chronicle cover story lauding a new generation of black studies Ph.D., with a sidebar profiling the first five students in Northwestern University's six-year-old black studies doctoral program. Riley offered sarcastic summaries of three of their dissertation topics, describing them as "left-wing victimization claptrap."

It was a shot heard 'round the blogosphere. Riley was denounced as a purveyor of hate speech. Sixteen Northwestern black studies faculty members joined a guest post on Brainstorm lambasting her comments as "cowardly, uninformed, irresponsible, repugnant, and contrary to the mission of higher education."

Chronicle editor Liz McMillen initially stood by Riley, defending her piece as an invitation to debate and allowing her to respond to critics. A few days later, faced with a deluge of angry mail and an anti-Riley petition with over 6,500 signatures, she reversed herself. A May 7 "Editor's Note " stated that Riley's post "did not meet The Chronicle's basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles" and that Riley had been asked to leave Brainstorm. McMillen also apologized for initially treating Riley's post as "informed opinion" and "for the distress these incidents have caused."

The conservative media picked up the story, portraying Riley's dismissal as an egregious case of speech-stifling political correctness and cowardice. One might think most liberals would agree, on the principle attributed to Voltaire: "I disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Yet most left-of-center commentators who have weighed in—such as Atlantic editor and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates and Center for American Progress fellow Eric Alterman—have condemned Riley and defended her firing. Their argument is that, while Riley has a right to her opinions and criticism of black studies is not racist, her post was so "lazy," "sloppy" and "ignorant" that such "know-nothing hackery" has no place on the blog of an academic publication. That's because Riley freely admits she did not read the dissertations she lampooned but relied on The Chronicle's summaries (not, as some have mistakenly claimed, the titles alone).

Is this a sloppy approach for a 520-word blogpost? First, let's turn the political tables. Suppose a left-wing academic blogger had poked fun at stupid Ph.D. dissertations from conservative Christian colleges arguing that homosexuality can be cured or that teaching evolution undermines students' morals—and based her post on a magazine's summary of the thesis topics. Would those tut-tutting at Riley's laziness demand actual perusal of such works?

Second, let's look at The Chronicle's general standards of quality in blogging—standards that Alterman suggests were lowered for Riley in order to appease the right by hiring a conservative.

There is Laurie Essig, a Middlebury College sociologist whose posts—mostly unrelated to academia—tend to be fact-free, muddled rants on the "white privilege" underlying the campaign against child-murdering Ugandan warlord Kony, the heterosexual oppressiveness of the happy endings of "Harry Potter," or the merits  of an attempted pie assault on Rupert Murdoch. One Essig post decries the "hysteria," "racism," and "class warfare" of concerns about unwed motherhood, making the unsupported claim that children of single parents fare no worse than their two-parent peers when they have similar resources. Another asserts that Americans "hate black women" but love Oprah Winfrey because she supports the values of "white supremacy" (by emphasizing individual choices) and "fulfills white longings for Mammy."

There is also Dave Barash, a University of Washington biologist and psychologist, who a month ago made a post titled "Major League Baseball Takes on the First Amendment." In it, Barash deplored the suspension of Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillén after he professed love for Fidel Castro, and his subsequent apology. So much for intellectual rigor: one need not be a constitutional scholar to know that a private company's decision to sanction an employee for offensive public speech is not a First Amendment issue. Shockingly, Barash's dedication to free speech does not seem to extend to Naomi Schaefer Riley.

Finally, what about the factual diligence displayed by some of Riley's media critics? Alterman—who writes that "conservative journalists specialize in attacks that ignore traditional standards of fairness and professional competence"—repeatedly makes the inaccurate claim that Riley slammed the thesis projects because she "didn't like their titles." He also throws in an aside about her earlier authorship of a Wall Street Journal column which "sought to blame women who dressed provocatively for 'moronic behavior' that allegedly invited rape." Alterman's source, however, is not Riley's column—which never mentioned provocative dress—but a left-wing website's angry recap . (Riley's actual point was that it's not smart to get so plastered at a college party that you can't refuse, or even remember, unwanted sex.) Surely, relying on a hostile summary to attack an op-ed column—which can be found and read in a few minutes—is sloppier than relying on a sympathetic summary to attack a dissertation.

Whether Riley's broadside against black studies is entirely fair is another matter. Some of her supporters quibble with her dismissal of a thesis on black women's childbirth experiences, including historical black midwifery, as irrelevant. It should be noted that Riley has not hesitated to lambaste what she regards as trivial research topics in other fields. Her last book, The Faculty Lounges—praised by Queens College sociologist and staunch liberal Andrew Hacker—asserts that nearly all current research in the humanities and social sciences is useless because it's too narrow to be read by more than a dozen people. Others would argue that specialized research enriches knowledge and may supply valuable material to authors writing for broader audiences.

That aside, The Chronicle's description of the other four dissertations from its up-and-coming stars lends considerable weight to Riley's argument that black studies programs are dominated by leftist hackery rather than (as Northwestern professor Martha Biondi claimed in the Chronicle piece) "rigorous intellectual inquiry."

Take La TaSha Levy, whose dissertation on black Republicanism "argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have 'played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.'" According to Levy, her interest in the topic was born when, as director of the black cultural center at the University of Virginia, she saw students reading books by black authors challenging left-wing racial orthodoxy. She worried that "they were latching on to arguments that black culture was the only thing that held the race back, and against affirmative action." Does one need to read the dissertation to see that Levy has no interest in seriously engaging the ideas of those odious "black conservatives"? The fact that she lumps McWhorter—a self-styled liberal Democrat who supports Barack Obama and has never voted for George W. Bush—together with Republicans does not inspire confidence.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's thesis "looks at the federal government's role in promoting single-family homeownership in low-income black communities after the unrest of the 1960s." Given Taylor's comments about "the profitability of racism in the housing market," the clear implication is that promoting black homeownership was a sinister agenda.

The Chronicle's profile neglects to add that Taylor is affiliated with the International Socialist Organization, whose socialism is not mere advocacy of European-style welfare: the ISO website boasts of standing "in the tradition of revolutionary socialists Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky." One of Taylor's columns for its publication, Socialist Worker, hails the urban riots of the 1960s as "rebellions" that "transformed U.S. politics." Had Rush Limbaugh set out to create a caricature of a black studies Ph.D., he could not have done better.

The two dissertations Riley did not mention further support her case.

Thus, Zinga Fraser, a political activist whose dissertation is a comparative study of black Congresswomen Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, explains to the Chronicle that her goal is to examine "the aggressive politics of poverty and reproductive health and how the demonization of black women still operates today."

Dwayne Nash, a former New York assistant district attorney who says that "prosecuting people of color took a toll" on him, is studying "stop-and-frisk laws as a form of legalized racial profiling." According to Nash, stop and frisk "has very little to do with stopping crime and has a lot to do with how blackness is perceived." Stop and frisk does raise genuine concerns about civil liberties and police-community relations; but to start with the assumption that such practices have nothing to do with actual crime—whose victims, overwhelmingly, are also black—is more dogma than reality-based inquiry. (A recent study led by George Mason University's David Weisbrud, a world-renowned criminologist, provides evidence that street stops track the occurrence of criminal incidents.)

Is this ground to dismiss the black-studies enterprise? Alterman cites four scholars in the field—Anthony Appiah, Henry Louis Gates, William Julius Wilson, and Cornel West—as intellectuals whose work needs no justification. Actually, many would question that description of West, whose contributions to American discourse include attacking Barack Obama as "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs." As for Appiah and Wilson, their primary disciplines are, respectively, philosophy and sociology; both have been attacked  by hardcore black-studies mavens as insufficiently pro-black. Gates has cautioned against excessive politicization in African-American studies and against a "fear of pluralism" that would exclude conservative voices like Sowell. That warning seem to go unheeded at programs such as Northwestern's.

Riley's Brainstorm post could have launched a discussion of these issues. Instead, the response has amounted to radicals shouting "burn the heretic" and liberals using double standards to the excuse the immolation.

As often happens, bad behavior on the left reinforces bad tendencies on the right. Too many conservatives move from criticism of left-wing academic nonsense to general hostility toward scholarship and "elitist" knowledge. And there are those who would use "political correctness" as an excuse to wink at real bigotry. The Riley affair gives them ammunition. 

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.