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    Professing liberalism

    Eric is angered about honor killings in the Islamic world, and rightfully so. He also links a City Journal article by Kay Hymowitz. It’s well written, of course, and there’s nothing she says that isn’t true, or arguably true, to my knowledge. I couldn’t help feeling what she was emphasizing wasn’t the major point, though.

    I’m not saying that Hymowitz and Eric are worried over nothing. If anything, I think the problem is a little darker than it looks from what she’s written. Most of the people Hymowitz cites are, if not insane, not the sort of people any sane person ever goes to for reliable depictions of reality. I mean, her conversation with one Miriam Cooke of Duke University, president of something called the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies, is pricelessly appalling; but most academics, while to the left of the American public, are not that airheaded. And how illuminating really is it to demonstrate yet again that Michel Foucault was and Gayatri Spivak is a professional reality-dodger?

    After all, the throughover moral relativists and post-structuralists are in the minority, even among humanities and social science professors. Really, they are. My experience can’t be universalized wholesale, but it squares with what Christina Hoff Sommers (mentioned by Hymowitz) found when researching Who Stole Feminism? and with experiences friends from other colleges have reported to me over the years. Liberals who love genuine diversity of thought don’t go after their multi-culturalist/post-colonial idiot colleagues in public because (1) they underestimate the influence of their ideas (on people who run foundations and think tanks, as well as the more impressionable students), (2) they feel guilty about their own relative privilege and can’t figure out how to acknowledge that without undermining their criticisms, and (3) they don’t want to start trouble. I hate to say it, but I’d bet that that last is the most important factor.

    I had a professor (not an advisor of mine) explain to me that he knew Foucault was garbage but could still see his value as someone who shook up people’s assumptions, so why get all bent out of shape at people who cited him? That’s nice, but questioning your assumptions isn’t an end in itself. You’re supposed to be trying to figure out whether you should retain them because they’ve remained intact through testing, or you should discard them because they have not. Someone who plays fast and loose with facts, as Foucault did, is exactly the wrong sort of person to be looking to for help in that operation.

    In other words, what worries me is less that there are amoral crazies in the academy than that the moderates who know better do not very loudly call BS when they start spouting nonsense. The very way such incidents stick in the memory–remember Martha Nussbaum’s attack on Judith Butler in The New Republic a few years ago?–testifies to their relative rarity. Of course, it’s 25 years too late to prevent post-structuralism from gaining ascendancy; but one might have thought that 9/11 would have a galvanizing effect on the reasonable types, as it did on a lot of other liberal Americans. It appears not to have, and it’s a shame.

    BTW, not exactly the same topic, but has anyone else noticed a lot of blog posts lately with titles of the “X, Y, and Z” form? You know, like “Feminism, Commercialization, and the Bobbie Ann Mason Protagonist.” I’m not criticizing, though it does make me feel a bit as if I were doing readings for a senior seminar. My own titling habits probably don’t gladden many hearts, and I used a mock-academic title here because of the subject matter. It’s just odd that they seem to be cropping up everywhere.

    Added later: Amritas addresses something I hesitated over before posting this originally:

    What is so great about the word ‘moderate’? Would you approve of someone who was ‘moderately’ in favor of freedom – or of evil? “He’s not an – ugh! – extremist. He’s a moderate. He’s OK with a theft here, a killing there. Isn’t inconsistency what life is all about?

    Actually, while I wouldn’t use the words “in favor of,” I do think most of us are moderate in the sense that we prefer not to achieve perfect safety through draconian measures. Providing people with the means and confidence to defend themselves from miscreants may not erase crime, but it’s the compromise most of us prefer.

    I probably should have been clearer about this, but I hope it’s obvious that I wasn’t using moderate to mean “gloriously wishy-washy.” If I had to pinpoint the types of moderation I was referring to, I’d say there were two aspects. One is that, while it’s perfectly acceptable to arrive at an extreme position, a scholar should get there through sober, methodical consideration of the unvarnished facts, such as they’re available. A second is that, when thinking about social change, it’s generally (not always, but generally) wiser to look for ways to bring it about organically and…I was going to say slowly, but I suppose it doesn’t always have to be slowly, exactly. It just can’t outrun people’s ability to adjust to it.

    So that’s what I was talking about. A professor who, for example, may believe that there is something inherently unfree about head coverings for women but would not advocate policies that ban them because she recognizes that real, living people used to existing standards of modesty may need time to get used to thinking of women in less constricting clothing as respectable. Perhaps I should just have said “pragmatic” rather than “moderate.”

    2 Responses to “Professing liberalism”

    1. Eric Scheie says:

      Wonderful, thoughtful post, Sean. (All the more so because I thoroughly agree.)
      I’m honored by the link.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Pleasure’s all mine, Eric. You’re right that this is a rather conspicuous elephant in the room.