Truly this is a bizarre time for the life of the mind in America. The airwaves and best-seller lists are noisy with anti-intellectual jeers. The ruling party embraces the nostrums of “No Child Left Behind” while tossing the teaching of all subjects besides reading and math to the winds. Many of its leaders declare that the Republic was founded not in the name of enlightenment but as a “Christian nation.” When the topics of evolution, climate change, stem cells, and contraception arise, the president of the United States blithely jettisons scientific judgments. On the evidence of his dialogue with reporters, and his behavior toward underlings like former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and the former Environmental Protection Agency chief, Christine Todd Whitman, his interest in and capacity for reason are impaired.
Conservative pundits apologize for him. …
In this perverse climate, dissenting intellectuals might gain some traction by standing for reason. They might begin by asking how it came to pass, over recent decades, that reason in America was defeated. They might explore the subject of public ignorance, its origins, tactics, and prospects. They might also study contrary tendencies, including scientists’ resistance to ignorance. They might investigate how it happened that the academic left retreated from off-campus politics. They might consider the possibility that they painted themselves into a corner apart from their countrymen and women. Among the topics they might explore: the academic left’s ignorance of main currents of American life, their positive tropism for foreign saviors, their reliance on intricate jargon, their commitment to keeping up with post-everything hotshots of “theory” from more advanced continents. Instead, in a time-honored ritual of the left, a number of academic polemicists choose this moment to pump up rites of purification. At a time when liberals hold next to no sway in any leading institution of national government, when the prime liberal institution of the last centuryorganized labor wobbles helplessly, when most national media tilt so far to the right as to parody themselves, the guardians of purity rise to a high pitch of sanctimoniousness aimed at … heretics. Liberals, that is.
Gitlin notes that he is attacked, from the right and from the left, in three recent books on academic politics: The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual by Eric Lott, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America by David Horowitz, and Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right by Timothy Brennan. Good for Gitlin, who offers some choice nuggets from Lott’s book. For instance:
“The crimes committed in the name of communism are real,” he acknowledges, “but they … are certainly no match for the atrocities launched by liberal capitalism, which, far from being officially acknowledged, are completely disavowed or excused.”
Plus ça change…: I vividly remember a young man in a black beret spouting similar tripe in the college cafeteria at Rutgers circa 1985. (One of his argument was that capitalism kills people by encouraging them to smoke for the sake of corporate profits. He was somewhat stumped when I pointed out that the rates of smoking were far higher in what was then the Soviet Union than in the United States.)
But back to Gitlin, who concludes:
Professor Brennan is right that the academic left is nowhere today. It matters more to David Horowitz than to anyone else. The reason is that its faith-based politics has crashed and burned. It specializes in detraction. It offers no plausible picture of the world. Such spontaneous movements as do crop up in America — like the current immigrant demonstrations — do not emerge from the campus left. Neither do reformers’ intermittent attempts to eject the party of plutocracy and fundamentalism from power, to win universal health care, to protect the planet from further convulsions, to enlarge the rights of the least privileged. If more academics deigned to work toward reforms, they might contribute ideas about taxes, education, trade, employment, investment, foreign policy, and security from jihadists. But the academic left is too busy guarding the flame of nullification. They think they can fortify themselves with vigilance. In truth, their curses are gestures of helplessness.
Read, as they say, the whole thing. I don’t agree, of course, with all of Gitlin’s indictment of conservatism and conservative policies, but I think that he has a point, in particular, about the rise of anti-reason, anti-Enlightenment 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 the Bill O’Reillys of the world to mock the academic elite as a bunch of “pinheads” who spend most of their time out there in what Bill likes to call “la-la land.” Left-wing intellectuals began to assail reason as a white male bourgeois prejudice long before the current wave of conservative attacks on the legacy of the Enlightenment. They not only abdicated what should have been their role as reason’s defenders, they joined forces with its enemies.
In his own comment, Andrew Sullivan gives an interesting specific example of the moral and intellectual banktupcy of the left-wing academy:
I think particularly of the gay academic left, so busy tying themselves into “queer studies” knots that they were utterly absent in the battles for marriage equality and military service. (And when they were not absent, they were busy criticizing advocates for gay equality for being “assimilationist.”)
The same can be said of the feminist academic left, so busy tying itself into knots over such issues as whether Newton’s physics are a metaphor for rape, whether “seminar” is a patriarchal term, and whether logic is inherently biased against women to address the issues that are still holding back gender equality (above all, the problems of work-family balance).
Today, the academic left fiddles while the Enlightenment legacy burns.