A conservative complaint against Left-liberal intellectuals, commentators, and journalists is that in their zeal to discredit those with whom they disagree, they tend to dismiss, belittle, and misrepresent conservative ideas rather than engage fairly with their substance.
I recently reviewed Bruce Bawer’s The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind for Front Page Magazine, commending it as an important analysis of the virulently anti-American gobbledygook that passes for high-level scholarship at American universities today. Bawer shows how the brand of theory that focuses on ethnic and gender experience (Women’s Studies, Chicano Studies, and so on) teaches young people to see themselves as victims and to hate America for its putatively oppressive history. In preparing my review, I had read Professor Andrew Delbanco’s damning assessment of the book in the New York Times and quoted from it briefly in my concluding paragraph.
Delbanco’s review has remained in my thoughts for its glib disingenuousness. It struck me as an exemplary instance of the leftist refusal to treat conservative ideas responsibly. From the progressivist rectitude of his opening compliment on Bawer’s contribution to gay studies (could he not have found a less stereotypical word than “sensitive” to praise it?) to the distancing quotation marks he uses for “radical Islam” in mentioning Bawer’s political work, Delbanco’s review is a showcase of leftist rhetorical maneuvers and a dishonest document from first to last, deserving of a more detailed analysis than I was able to give it previously.
Delbanco’s attack on The Victims’ Revolution has two essential planks: that Bawer’s is an “intemperate” “caricature” rather than an informed and informative analysis, and that it is “out of date,” a “rear-guard action against an enemy who has largely ceded the field.” In the course of the review, he also accuses Bawer of various other intellectual failings, in particular lack of “balance” and accuracy.
These are serious charges, serious enough to dissuade a reader from taking time to look into the book. What is remarkable about Delbanco’s review is not only that the charges are demonstrably false but also that Delbanco does not even attempt to substantiate them. Employing instead the time-honored tactics of leftist attack, he is content to malign the book falsely rather than to demonstrate specifically where and how its argument is incorrect.
On this score, it is telling that Delbanco never takes issue with Bawer’s account of the intellectual vacuity and misleading anti-Americanism at the heart of contemporary academic theory; nor does he argue with a single one of Bawer’s claims about its leading figures, strategies, or effects. Instead, he simply ignores the whole lot—every documented pronouncement, conference paper, academic discussion, interview response, course title, and reference text—dismissing it all as a “caricature” with only “a modicum of truth” by a writer “overwrought by his own outrage.” If Bawer had written a different sort of piece—perhaps, say, an impressionistic short article, heavy on personal opinion and light on evidence—such a reviewer response might be fair. If Bawer had confined his analysis to the work of a few fringe radicals or had quoted only from marginal and largely discredited texts, then Delbanco’s dismissive summation would be justified.
But it is not. Although one would never guess it from Delbanco’s account, The Victims’ Revolution is a detailed chronicle in which the exact words of Identity Studies theorists are extensively quoted and analyzed. Bawer has focused on the central figures in the field—heavyweight academic stars Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., among others—those whose works appear, and are admiringly studied, on course lists across North America and are quoted by nearly every PhD student in the humanities who wants to show off his or her theoretical savvy. How can a work be a “caricature” when it quotes for hundreds of pages from the avowed leaders of the field? Such a slur by Delbanco is an attempt to distract his readers from the fact that he is unable, by any legitimate means, to defend such faux scholarship.
Delbanco pursues his diatribe with an equally serious and similarly unsubstantiated charge. He claims that Bawer, as an American who has lived in Norway for many years, does not really know the field he writes about, that he jetted back on a brief visit as an academic tourist, and took away an erroneous impression from the “few conferences” he attended. According to Delbanco, the type of theory Bawer so despises has now largely faded from the scene. “Many of my younger colleagues,” Delbanco assures the reader, “are returning to close readings of literary classics” and carrying out a “synthesis of the old political history … with the newer social history.” Who are these younger scholars returning to solid, traditional methods? In which acclaimed new books have the identity radicals been debunked? If it is the case that the tide has turned, it would be cause for rejoicing indeed, and for a decisive rejection of Bawer’s thesis. But Delbanco fails to cite a single example of the academic return to sanity. It would have been simple enough to mention one or two titles or names (though these would not, admittedly, have been adequate to make his case for the irrelevance of Bawer’s concerns); but he fails to provide even these few. Taking his page from the Leftist playbook, he chose a personal discrediting of Bawer rather than a genuine counter-argument.
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