Nutty Professors

Hal Foster

  • Quick Studies: The Best of ‘Lingua Franca’ edited by Alexander Star
    Farrar, Straus, 514 pp, US $18.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 374 52863 2

The cultural strategy of the Reaganite Right was prepared as early as 1976 by Daniel Bell in Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Blame the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s – rebellious students, civil rights agitators, wild-eyed feminists – for the grievous decline in public morality, cultural literacy, educational standards and everything else that has gone to hell: blame them and not, say, the cultural contradictions of capitalism. The Culture Wars proper – the assault on multicultural education and identity politics, on feminist gains and gay rights – followed in the 1980s; and as they raged on into the 1990s, it made tactical sense for the Right to train some guns on liberal campuses, for where else (besides Hollywood) were those damn subversives so concentrated now?

It was then that the Culture Wars narrowed to the Political Correctness Battles, with attacks launched on campus codes regarding affirmative action, sexual harassment and hate speech, as well as on curricular challenges to the Western Canon (this is how ‘theory’ was first typed as a diabolical agent). Clearly many radicals had hung around the universities, infiltrated the ranks of the professoriat and proceeded to poison the minds of the young. The academy was overrun by these ‘tenured radicals’ (as Roger Kimball put it in his 1990 book), engaged in the promulgation of an ‘illiberal education’ (Dinesh D’Souza in 1991), dedicated to ‘the closing of the American mind’ (Allan Bloom in 1987). The sense of embattlement is palpable in a recent anthology of articles from the New Criterion, whose editor, Hilton Kramer, gazes back on the founding of the magazine in 1982:

The ‘long march through the institutions’ that had been promised by the radicals of the 1960s was nearing its completion. In the universities, in our leading arts institutions, in the media, in federal and state agencies concerned with funding the arts and humanities, and in most private foundations, the legacy of 1960s radicalism – now wearing the mask of a benevolent bureaucratic liberalism – was everywhere apparent. Dissent from this left-liberal orthodoxy was virtually nonexistent.

Though almost funny in its near paranoia (the 1950s were back, with academics and administrators in the role of the Communists), this vision was dead serious, and many progressives were foolish in taking it lightly at the time, or looking to common sense to dispel it – in part because common sense itself was also at stake. These crusaders had more than alarmist titles to brandish: they had the political firepower – not only old warhorses like Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan, but new stalwarts such as William Bennett, head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and then Secretary of Education under Reagan, who worked to abolish both agencies, and Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick and head of the NEH under George I, who wanted to absolve American history from any critique whatsoever. (When I’ve seen these two on TV again lately, I’ve wanted to cry out, like the kids in the horror film Poltergeist, ‘They’re back!’ Can Newt Gingrich, another failed professor ripe with academic ressentiment, be far behind?)

The intimidation factor was enormous, as was the media saturation, and soon enough it seemed to be open season – not only on the floor of Congress but in newspapers across the country – on ‘revisionist historians’ and ‘nihilistic deconstructionists’, post-colonial critics and queer theorists. Very different schools of thinkers were lumped together and attacked – as subversive, obscurantist and, weirdly enough, lazy to boot. The new resentments against intellectuals drew on an old suspicion that runs deep in American culture – that intellectual work is not work at all. The Clinton Administration provided little cover here – its cultural politics were populist – and even institutions once considered friendly to intellectuals, such as the New York Times, mocked the humanities, as with its annual listings of far-fetched titles from Modern Language Association meetings. (It rarely focused on the infinitely more dangerous obfuscations of language perpetrated by the State and Defense departments.) One common take on the American academic came to be that while some scientists might have beautiful minds, most humanists are nutty professors, and some (to borrow a phrase from the character assassination of Anita Hill) are a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.

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