I’ve been up so long it looks like down to me

From Claire Berlinski’s review of The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind by Bruce Bawer:

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.

Sounds pretty familiar to me although perhaps overdone but not all that overdone. The reviewer, on the other hand, doesn’t actually like the book’s conclusions since it visits much of the problems of our youth culture on the social science and humanities as taught at the institutes of higher learning they attend. Sure there’s lots more to it than that, but that is also one part of the problem. Will now track down the book and read it for myself.

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12 Responses to I’ve been up so long it looks like down to me

  1. I wouldn’t put the rise in identity politics down to the universities, either. The Americans, bless their hearts, tend to assume that everything good and bad that happens in the world starts and ends in their country – actually, usually their discussions about western cultural problems tend to assume that the US IS the west, full stop. And, fair enough, they are so big that their problems often tend to dwarf those had in the rest of the west.

    But identity politics arose in Australia at a similarly early point. I’m sure it was the same in the UK: it goes back at least as far as the seventies. There was a broader cultural shift going on, and if the universities in the US did start to ‘teach’ identity politics in the ’80s, then this strongly suggests that the universities reacted to something already going on in the culture – they didn’t initiate it.

    Who knows how it all started? I think Rafe has an interesting theory about the Vietnam War creating a demographic imbalance in the universities – the people who tended to stay behind, get degrees, etc, tended to be the protestors and conscientious objectors – and subsequently the universities became left-wing enclaves, rather than right-wing ones. Maybe, maybe not.

  2. entropy

    Many, Many people get degrees,Tim. What is more interesting is that those of the left persuasion tended to be more likely to be employed by the education system. Why is that? Was it a deliberate selection of right minded people by those in place, or was it those of the right were not interested in the first place?

  3. Rabz

    … those of the left persuasion tended to be more likely to be employed by the education system.

    … or was it those of the right were not interested in the first place?

    Those that can, do, those that can’t, teach.

  4. Well what I was saying about the bias in universities was really a side speculation. It’s quite difficult to comment on the bias in the unis without knowing any numbers, really, as all the evidence would end up being anecdotal.

    Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, written in, was it the late ’60s? shows evidence that things were very different back then. The hero – Jim Dixon – is trying to get into the university system; his sympathies are left-wing/Labour. The old Dons tend to be stuffy old Tories. I read that the universities in Australia used to be conservative-leaning as well, prior to the 70s. Things can change!

  5. entropy

    All I am saying is it doesn’t have to be a deliberate conspiracy. But people tend to employ people like themselves.

  6. Also mentioned in that interesting review is the habit university education has now of closing minds, rather than making them more liable to change. This problem has been around for a good deal longer than the ’80s; since the 40s, at least, if this passage from C S Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is a guide:

    It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons, we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

    But western liberal culture has largely lost the narrative of personal change it possessed in earlier centuries – ie, Christianity. That’s another element in current identity politics.

  7. dover_beach

    Looking for answers might be aided by reading, say, Buckley’s God and Man at Yale or Maurice Cowling’s Religion and Public Doctrine.

  8. one old bruce

    “Why is that? Was it a deliberate selection of right minded people by those in place, or was it those of the right were not interested in the first place?”

    By ‘right’ don’t you mean ‘Classical Liberal’? Consider the can of worms opened by the word ‘liberal’ and you’ll start to see that leftism dominates because there is NO actual academic opposition. (Yes Rafe Karl Popper, but how to call him ‘right-minded’?) Any undergraduate ‘queer-studies major’ can EASILY claim JS Mill’s individualism as intellectual foundation.

    Anthropologists to blame? Or further back, JS Mill’s ‘perfect equality’?

    The very first rigorous philosophical defence of western conservative principles in centuries (correct me if I’m wrong!) was by Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue, 1981) a Marxist who argued his way to rediscovering traditional Roman Catholicism via Aristotle. (His arguments are said to work well with any conservative religious tradition, including Islam, and postmodernists have claimed him as a pillar of their discipline.)

    Otherwise if you are arguing the minutiae of Liberalism, MacIntyre himself says you end up in the type of social and intellectual chaos we see all around.

  9. I remember reading, One Old Bruce, that the right-wing academics in the US tended to be those who didn’t talk about politics in classes or in their academic work. It makes sense; the left tends to politicise everything (‘the personal is political’), and to favour collective action. The right tends to reserve a sphere aside from politics, and to favour individual choice and liberty. Right politics will surely always be more inchoate and chaotic, and often more circumspect when it comes to articulating political beliefs. (Clint Eastwood had a good metaphor this at the Republican convention – ‘We’re conservatives, we hold our cards close to our chest.’) This is a Very Good Thing! But the result is that they will only tend to mobilise when the left becomes supremely obnoxious and the problems they create become too insistent to ignore.

  10. .


    We are using words correctly. Europe invented the language and America mutilated it. I am not going to appease Americans simply because they have the biggest economy and hence media, thus their constitutional interpretation dominating etymologies.

    If you want to feel better, buy them some dictionaries.

    I am a libertarian and I have never suddenly realised I was arguing a position the progressives would generally support on progressive principles.

    Any undergraduate ‘queer-studies major’ can EASILY claim JS Mill’s individualism as intellectual foundation.

    Try reading von Mises’ Human Action or Ayn Rand’s Capitalism the Unknown Ideal.

  11. one old bruce

    OK, put aside MacIntyre’s criticism of liberalism, here’s a good but brief essay on the Mises.org (thanks Dot) about JS Mill’s problems, quoting Cowling (thanks Dover B) too.


    - I stand by my proposal that the rot at the heart of western culture and education can be traced to JS Mill’s ‘Liberty’. (Not anthropology, not postmodernism, not even academic Marxism…).

  12. one old bruce

    That is I am saying, that if JS Mill, author of a classic pivotal liberal text (far more important and influential than anything or anyone later, sorry Dot), and his era and mileu, can interpret liberty as including forms of what we now regard as tyranny, then IS IT ANY WONDER that ‘Classical Liberalism’ has evolved into and produced modern ‘progressive’ liberalism such as our ‘queer studies major’ and his fellow ‘collectivist’ liberals? None as far as I can see, all the same.

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