Bruce Bawer, the intrepid international journalist and Freedom Center Shillman Fellow, has just published The Victims’ Revolution, an expose of “Identity Studies” in American universities. These are the programs predicated on the allegation that certain minorities in America, mainly women, gays, blacks, and Latinos, are victims of continuing prejudice, bigotry, sexism, and racism. Yet the focus on these programs is not on the gritty, pragmatic political slog necessary in a democracy for effecting change. Instead, as though these professors know their charges of endemic American prejudice are overblown, the curricula and scholarship of victim studies are characterized by the once trendy, now passé, postmodern and poststructuralist fads that never stray from highly abstract obsessions with “representation” in language, art, and popular culture, all delivered in jargon-ridden pompous prose laced with progressive bromides.
Anyone familiar with university life today knows how deeply these programs have penetrated the curriculum and the institution. As the review on FrontPage shows, Bawer’s survey is a penetrating contribution to documenting the absurdity, hypocrisy, and sheer mediocrity of such programs. What I find interesting is the response of academic orthodoxy to Bawer’s catalogue of absurdities. Consider the review by Andrew Delbanco, professor of “American Studies” at Columbia, in The New York Times. It is a textbook illustration of how the academic establishment goes after anyone who exposes the corruption of a reactionary, failing institution.
Delbanco’s main tactic is to deny that the problem even exists. According to Delbanco, Bawer’s book contains only a “modicum of truth.” The rest is a “caricature” that is “out of date.” Bawer’s targets are a “shrinking sector of academic life,” a relic of the ‘70s and ‘80s generation now “losing its grip.” This is a curious statement, given how entrenched these programs are in most universities. Even at a middling Cal State university like mine, we have Women’s Studies, Africana Studies, American Indian Studies, and Chicano and Latin American Studies. All offer numerous courses, award majors and/or minors, and employ all together 17 permanent and numerous adjunct faculty. And they have a large presence in the General Education program, with a total of 42 courses. This institutional presence belies Delbanco’s claim that the ideology underlying Identity Studies is “losing its grip.”
As for the nature of these programs, the catalogue description of Fresno State’s Women’s Studies Department confirms Bawer’s analysis: “Women’s Studies is an approach that places women in the center of inquiry. The primary mission of Women’s Studies is to analyze gender. Students acquire both a local and global perspective on gender. Attentiveness to diversity, privilege and power, and women’s unique creative contributions to human experience are central aspects of this training. More than simply a body of knowledge, Women’s Studies encourages students to apply their learning to transform their lives and their communities. Women’s Studies offers a vital perspective everywhere gender impacts our world.”
This description encapsulates the central place of dubious postmodern theory in Identity Studies, as well as their focus on victimization. The emphasis on “gender” assumes as fact the highly contestable notion that being a female is not a question of nature, but of cultural and social “constructs” that reflect not nature but “privilege and power.” Note too another corrupting dimension of victim studies: the desire to “transform” lives and communities, a political and ideological goal that sets aside the scholarly demand for truth, sound arguments, and intellectual integrity no matter whose political ox is gored. Thus the Women’s Studies courses focused on rape and incest, not to mention the Victim Services Certificate offered by the department.
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