When Dreger pointed approvingly on Twitter to University of Chicago’s statement on “safe spaces,” I told her that most of my liberal Twitter follows were enthusiastically sharing this piece, UChicago’s anti-safe spaces letter isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about power. The piece makes some coherent points, but mostly it is self-congratulatory intellectual masturbation. At a certain point the cultural Left no longer made any pretense to being liberal, and transformed themselves into “progressives.” They have taken Marcuse’s thesis in Repressive Tolerance to heart.
Though I hope that Dreger and her fellow travelers succeed in rolling back the clock, I suspect that the battle here is lost. She points out, correctly, that the total politicization of academia will destroy its existence as a producer of truth in any independent and objective manner. More concretely, she suggests it is likely that conservatives will simply start to defund and direct higher education even more stridently than they do now, because they will correctly see higher education as purely a tool toward the politics of their antagonists. I happen to be a conservative, and one who is pessimistic about the persistence of a public liberal space for ideas that offend. If progressives give up on liberalism of ideas, and it seems that many are (the most famous defenders of the old ideals are people from earlier generations, such as Nadine Strossen and Wendy Kaminer, with Dreger being a young example), I can’t see those of us in the broadly libertarian wing of conservatism making the last stand alone.
Honestly, I don’t want any of my children learning “liberal arts” from the high priests of the post-colonial cult. In the near future the last resistance on the Left to the ascendency of identity politics will probably be extinguished, as the old guard retires and dies naturally. The battle will be lost. Conservatives who value learning, and intellectual discourse, need to regroup. Currently there is a populist mood in conservatism that has been cresting for a generation. But the wave of identity politics is likely to swallow the campus Left with its intellectual nihilism. Instead of expanding outward it is almost certain that academia will start cannibalizing itself in internecine conflict when all the old enemies have been vanquished.
During my romantic youth, I read the autobiography of Russell Means, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement. As an ethnic liberation movement sticking it to The White Man, AIM was, of course, beloved by left-wing radicals. Means, though, was interesting, and not just because he eventually ended up running for President on the Libertarian party ticket a couple times (once as Larry Flynt’s running mate). I recall him talking about how, when he finally served a couple years in federal prison, he made an effort to read Marx at the urging of fellow radicals, only to conclude that Marx’s view of the environment was just as acquisitive and destructive as any capitalist’s. In the mid-’80s, he burned all the bridges to his left by supporting MISURASATA, a rebellious coalition of Nicaraguan Indians, against the Sandinistas. As he tells it, the Indian regions under Somoza had been self-sufficient and largely self-governing, but the Sandinistas were determined to impose forced integration and relocation upon them, using all the tools of traditional colonialism. When he tried to spread the word about the movement, he found that he was effectively blacklisted from the same universities that had happily supported him just a few years earlier — until the Unification Church, the infamous Moonies, stepped in to give him a platform for a speaking tour. This choice of bedfellows, combined with his political heresy, cemented his former allies’ opinions of him. He never supported the Contras, or the Moonies, for that matter, but the mere fact of his association with groups like that, however strategically self-serving, was enough to pronounce him guilty.
So, yes, Alice Dreger. I read her book last year and liked it. I see from Razib’s post that she recently delivered the FIRE 2016 keynote address, which I’m sure has likewise cemented hostile opinions about her. Like many others, she seems to hold faith in some Platonic ideal of “liberalism” different from the way liberalism is actually practiced today; like Razib, I am impressed by her tenacity, but suspect she’s fighting a losing battle. The first article I read about her quoted her as being “uncomfortable” with the fact that she was attracting more conservative followers on Twitter, and last fall, she was still trying to distance herself from the dreaded c-word, for all the good that will do. I’m not saying she, or anyone else, should just give in and identify with the term; I’m saying that there is no point in hoping that you will be granted an exemption from slander due to your impeccable integrity. If you cross the party line, you’ll be treated just as uncharitably as any other caricature. As long as you fear excommunication, it’s a weakness, and people will sense that and exploit it.
I love the ideal, the fantasy, of academia. Easy to do, of course, from the naive perspective of a bookworm with a mere high-school diploma and a Whitman’s Sampler of community college classes to his credit. But a life devoted to reading, researching and writing while cloistered away in a library still tickles my fancy. It may simply be that a clownish curmudgeon like Morris Berman had the right idea after all — those who value such ideals will have to find a way to practice and preserve them without institutional support, without recognition, until one day, hopefully, when the intellectual climate changes for the better.