The Closing of the Centrist Mind

A self-proclaimed "sensible centrist" writes a sloppy attack on the academic left.


The Victims' Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind, by Bruce Bawer, Broadside Books, 378 pages, $25.99.

Some hail Women's Studies, Queer Studies, Black Studies, and Chicano Studies for at last giving due attention to the experiences and perspectives of groups that have traditionally been marginalized and oppressed in Western societies. Others condemn them as bastions of obscurantist jargon, poor academic standards, and intolerant collectivist politics. That there might be some truth in both judgments is a suggestion rarely defended, however obvious it might seem. A book making a sincere effort to sift the gold from the dross would be a welcome contribution to the debate.

Bruce Bawer's The Victims' Revolution is unfortunately not that book. For Bawer, academic multiculturalism is an undifferentiated mass of dishonest, un-American gobbledygook, and the thought that it might have anything useful to teach us seems never to have crossed his mind. Bawer has brought a sledgehammer to a job requiring tweezers.

Unlike several recent books with similar preoccupations, Bawer's does not come from a right-wing perspective. Bawer identifies instead with what he calls the "sensible centrism" of the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. All the same, Bawer often seems as reflexively hostile as any conservative to criticisms of the West in general and the United States in particular. (Uncoincidentally, Bawer has recently devoted three separate books to the "Islamic threat.") He manifests little effort at intellectual engagement with the ideas he opposes. Instead he merely presents them as though they were self-evidently absurd; or else he quotes, as dispositive, the simplistic strictures of hostile critics.

Feminism in particular seems to raise Bawer's ire; the chapter on Women's Studies is the book's longest. Bawer's "refutation" of the view that gender differences or sexual orientation are socially constructed consists in a bare appeal to the fact that most people think otherwise. He makes no attempt to answer the arguments and evidence offered by the other side. But then it's not even clear that Bawer understands what social construction means. He contrasts socially constructed phenomena, i.e., those whose existence or nature is constituted by social practices, with "real" phenomena, as though social constructions were unreal. Does he really think that money or marriage, say, are unreal, or that being red-green colorblind would be just as serious a disability in a society where traffic lights weren't red and green? Moreover, and incredibly, he characterizes the questions "Is sexuality an orientation or a choice?" and "are homosexuals born or are they made?" as "different ways of putting the same thing," as though environmental influences act upon us only via our consent.

While critical of leftist analyses that appeal to "false consciousness," Bawer constantly makes such appeals himself. When a Women's Studies student writes that she now notices gendered power relationships to which she had previously been oblivious, Bawer takes this to show—"plainly," even!—that the student has simply been "indoctrinated" and "manipulated intellectually"; the student's own testimony carries no weight with Bawer, and he never pauses to consider that perhaps she has learned to become genuinely sensitive to features of the social world to which he is not attuned. On the other hand, the fact that some self-identified Muslim feminists defend the hijab shows that they are really "stooges for Muslim men" and are trying to "stifle discussion of the plight of women in the Islamic world." Whether you agree or disagree with the pro-hijab feminists, Bawer's speculations about their motives could hardly survive the process of actually reading what they have written.

Bawer is remarkably careless about getting his opponents' ideas right. According to Bawer, Carol Gilligan's attribution of a justice ethic to men and of a care ethic to women represents a "Women's Studies orthodoxy" from which dissent is regarded as "well-nigh heretical." He even gives his massive chapter on the evils of feminism the title "Gilligan's Island." (Reading it does feel a bit like a three-hour tour ending in shipwreck.) Apart from quoting one feminist dissenter, he offers his readers no hint that Gilligan's thesis is in fact extremely controversial among feminists.

In response to Antonio Gramsci's claim that the "unseen structure of power" in societies like the United States is "even more potent" than that of a dictatorship, because "its invisibility makes it harder to recognize and therefore harder to resist," Bawer counters that the "inanity of all this is obvious," since the U.S. has "no death camps" and "no secret police arresting enemies of the people" to be "tortured, held clandestinely for years, and/or executed without trial." Of course this rosy picture of American justice is not entirely accurate (has Bawer never heard of extraordinary rendition?); but even if it were, how on earth would it be relevant as a reply to Gramsci? Since Gramsci's thesis is that oppression in American society tends to take covert rather than overt forms, Bawer's insistence on the absence of the overt forms seems beside the point.

Bawer also dredges up the usual misinterpretations of Andrea Dworkin (no, she never condemned all heterosexual intercourse as such) while adding gratuitous insults about her appearance; and he caricatures anti-rape activists as believing that "when darkness falls over the quad, male students metamorphose, werewolf-like, into potential rapists"—which suggests he does not understand what the word "potential" means. He moreover exaggerates the difference between contemporary feminism and its historical antecedents, telling us that first-wave feminism "focused largely on suffrage." In fact most first-wave feminists were concerned as much with social equality as with legal equality; and the idea that society is systematically structured by interlocking forms of oppression based on race, class, and gender was likewise a commonplace of first-wave feminism, and by no means the newfangled idea that Bawer supposes. And when these early feminists did focus on law, their target was much broader than suffrage alone; the inequity of marriage law, for example, which allowed husbands to rape their wives, control their property, and deny them access to their children, was a frequent object of criticism.

Bawer's portrayal of contemporary identity studies as rigidly monolithic is no more convincing. Whenever Bawer comes across instances of dissent within the academic left (he is always "surprised" or "amazed" by these—over and over), rather than recognizing these as evidence that the hegemony of postmodern orthodoxy is less complete than he would have us believe, he takes them to show that this orthodoxy is so awful that even some of its supposed adherents are driven to reject it. "Even the literary critic Gerald Graff, a star of the PC academy and certainly no conservative, has deplored [Paulo] Freire's influence," Bawer tells us; or else "the therapeutic aspect of Women's Studies" has taken such a "major psychological toll on the professoriate" that "even good soldiers are now willing to carp about it." (Emphases added.) For Bawer, any signs of ideological diversity are simply pressed into service to reinforce his narrative of stifling ideological conformity. Or else such signs are simply ignored, as with Catharine MacKinnon's critique of Marxism, Judith Butler's defense of free speech, and Michel Foucault's engagement with the free-market ideas of Austrian economics—three interesting topics that go unmentioned in Bawer's superficial, dismissive, and often insulting treatment of these thinkers.

There is, to be sure, plenty to criticize in postmodernism, multiculturalism, and identity studies, and Bawer scores some legitimate points. He rightly points out the gross ignorance involved when contemporary academic critics describe the tradition of literary criticism "from Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, De Quincey, and Hazlitt through Arnold, Macaulay, Pater, and Ruskin to Eliot, Jarrell, Trilling, and Orwell" as "dry and staid." He is right to complain of many identity theorists' uncritical acceptance of dubious scholarship (such as Afrocentrists' extravagant claims about the ancient Egyptians). And he makes a valid point in observing that students are too often being taught to "have contempt for a rich tradition with which they haven't even taken the trouble to become acquainted."

Indeed, a critique of the academic left could be pressed farther than Bawer takes it. Too many postmodern critics treat their own terms of criticism in the very "essentialist" manner they purport to oppose, making uncritical use of such (for them) pejorative concepts as "rationality," "capitalism," and "individualism" as though they represented unitary and unambiguous phenomena. And most of their arguments for relativism are hoary old sophisms that any freshman philosophy student should be able to recognize and diagnose. It's likewise a bit awkward for multiculturalists—though also, of course, for their critics—that multiculturalism is itself a distinctively Western idea; and many on the academic left seem unable to distinguish between cronyism and genuine free markets. Even their defensible claims are often made in exaggerated form.

Bawer's charges of academic intolerance and intimidation are often on target as well; "political correctness" has a pointy end with harmful effects. It is not news to postmodernists—indeed it is a Foucauldian commonplace—that the tools of liberation may all too easily be turned toward a new oppression. So it should likewise be no surprise to them, though it often is, that postmodernism's own ideas and strategies can be misused in the service of hegemony. In Foucault's own oft-quoted formulation: "My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous."

Yet the fact that these tools can be abused does not prove that they have no legitimate use. Bawer is dismayed at the postmodernists' tendency to see nothing in the values of western civilization but tools of domination. But his own approach, which sees nothing in the values of postmodernism but tools of domination, is a mirror image of what he opposes. Each side seems hypersensitive to the potential for abuse in the other's tradition but incuriously complacent regarding the potential for abuse in its own.

The extent of this mirror-image problem becomes still clearer in Bawer's discussion of the proper aims of higher education. Bawer says promising-sounding things (as, no doubt, would his opponents) about "learning to think analytically and critically" and "developing the individual, critical, questioning, adventurous mind." But such desiderata are quickly forgotten when Bawer begins insisting that the task of instructors should be to "introduce students to the glories of western civilization" and instill in them a "respect, even reverence, for the cultural heritage of the West" and the "universal values that make it unique in human history"—to "help young citizens to understand, respect, and build upon the values on which their nation is founded" and to "appreciate, cherish, and pass on to others the glories of Western civilization."

In short, Bawer's model of education is as unabashedly propagandistic as the postmodernist model that he condemns. It's fair to criticize modern academics when they are too quick to subvert and deconstruct classic texts rather than seeking to learn from them. But Bawer's alternative model of passive adulation of the mighty dead is no improvement. Both approaches evade the responsibility of critical engagement. (And wouldn't students gain more from studying both Aristotle and Foucault, both Samuel Butler and Judith Butler, than from studying just the one or just the other?)

The gravamen of Bawer's charge is that, for many in the academy, politicization has replaced a concern for objective truth. As I've noted, this is in many ways a legitimate complaint. Yet Bawer's criticism seems to apply at least as much to his own writing as to the intended targets of his critique. Bawer rarely shows any interest in understanding the reasons behind postmodernist and multiculturalist thought, or in showing that these reasons are mistaken. His concern is almost solely with the political use and political implications of these ideas. For Bawer no less than for his opponents, ideas are first and foremost tools of power in the service of political ends.