Saturday, December 22, 2001

So, there's more from Orange Coast college. This is the garden spot where four Saudi Arabian students accused professor Ken Hearlson of calling them "terrorists", "Nazis", and "murderers", comments which were mysteriously absent from two students' tapes of the class in question. Were these tapes faked by the Jew-dominated media, or the Zionists in the CIA? The choice is yours!

But, while you're pondering that question, consider as well the backup accusation which has emerged from the faculty --- that even if Hearlson didn't accuse the students of anything, and if all his comments were in fact directed at the behavior of Arab governments (as those oh-so-suspicious tapes seem to show), he was still "inferentially guilty" --- that is, that from Hearlson's observation that Arab governments hadn't clearly condemned the violence, one could "infer" that the students in front of him were responsible for it.

Which is clearly ridiculous, though no more so than the oft-blogged op-ed piece from the Boston Globe which argued that

Whether it's the dark, sad eyes of a woman in purdah or the anxious darkly circled eyes of a girl with anorexia nervosa, the woman trapped inside needs to be liberated from cultural confines in whatever form they take. The burka and the bikini represent opposite ends of the political spectrum but each can exert a noose-like grip on the psyche and physical health of girls and women.

Which brings us to the question, why is there a certain strain in academe that keeps saying this sort of stuff? One possibility is that they're just dumb, but you'd like to think that some brains are required to get ahead in academe. Another possibility is raised by Instapundit Glenn Reynolds, who claims that some academics would just rather be clever than right. NYU media critic and professor Mark Miller phrases this critique in economic terms, saying in effect, that when it's publish or perish, putting words --- any words --- on paper can be much more important to an aspiring academic's career than worrying about whether those words make any sense.

But, as Miller also points out, that explanation only goes so far. Op-ed pieces count for nothing on a curriculum vitae, yet the authors of the Globe piece feel strongly that they are conveying some important truths that the general public needs to hear, so they clearly feel that what they're doing is more than trading moves in some intellectual parlor game. So, the careerist, or as Miller would have it, the economic explanation can't explain this.

So, is it leftist politics? You might think so, but Miller, who's seen a lot, doesn't think that's quite it either:

... militant obscurantism, combined, absurdly, with the constant pretense that such work is somehow for the masses ... and the theorists' evidently inexhaustible desire to flog the dead horse of High Culture, do indeed suggest, if not descent from, a certain temperamental kinship with the Stalinists of yesteryear. But there's this crucial difference between then and now: Whereas that Marxist-Leninist critique was all about the scourge of capital, and placed its hopes in an awakened working class, what academic theory analyzes--or, rather, demonizes--now is merely "power"; and its collective hero is the (putatively) "powerless."

"Power" is an elastic concept--so imprecise, that we might best grasp it by personifying it. For there's a spectre haunting all that theory: a privileged and judgmental white man, elegantly dressed, articulate and sly, who fears and loathes the colored hordes, believes that women should stay in their place (where he can have his way with them), and thinks that homosexuals should either act like "us" or go to jail. ...

"Power," in other words, does not refer to what a Communist would once have called "the ruling class" or "the bourgeoisie." Nor, concomitantly, does "the powerless" mean "the workers of the world," but refers instead to those "outgroups" whose interests are reflected in what Kimball calls that "menu of left-wing social initiatives, from feminism to radical multiculturalism." Thus women, gays and people of color are "the powerless," as are some populations of the poor--i.e., those that can be understood (or "theorized") as female or non-white. Academic theorists will acknowledge each such bloc only insofar as they can see it as a group locked in heroic opposition to the certainties and/or conspiracies and/or desires of "power." (Thus post-colonial studies, for example, tends to concentrate on those bi-cultural encounters that are easiest to melodramatize--as East vs. West, or North vs. South--while it largely skirts those cases, such as Tunisia, where the opposition never was so stark.)

If you want to know where this bizarre idea of "power" comes from, try reading this essay, by UCLA sociologist Phil Agre, who is trying to figure out why some of his colleagues look askance at his "oppressive" how-to guides ("How to help someone use a computer", "How to be a leader in your field", etc.) because they are themselves, somehow, an expression of "power".

In particular, Agre discusses how this originates from a certain strain of literary criticism run amok, which in turn helps explain howlers like the opening of the Globe piece:

THE FEMALE BODY - covered in a burka or uncovered in a bikini - is a subtle subtext in the war against terrorism.

Say what? Bodies are not texts, except perhaps in the works of your humble author's namesake. If you've lost track of that, it's a whole lot easier to suggest that Cosmo is a tool of oppression on a par with the whips and guns of the Taliban.

Agre's piece has more meat, though it's a tougher read, because he's trying to meet his colleagues on their own ground. But it would be a shame to miss Miller's hilarious takedown of a lecture by multiculturalist Homi Bhabha...


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