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The Culture Wars’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Culture Wars from the October 6, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

Louis Menand has some interesting and even flattering things to say in his long review of my book, Dictatorship of Virtue, and I am certainly grateful for that. He also agrees with so much of it that it is disconcerting to arrive at the chronicle of alleged error that takes up the second half of the review. Indeed, Menand seems so eager to get on with the Hunt for Blunder that he does not bother to do a couple of other things. One of them is to give much of a sense of the subjects that the reporting in the book actually covers. The other thing he does not do is take seriously, in his conclusion, the harm that he himself describes stemming from multiculturalist practice.

Menand himself talks about multiculturalism’s “rigid intolerance for diversity of opinion.” He says that it is “fundamentally inimical to the notion of a commonweal.” Then he just blows away the concerns he himself has raised with the insouciant prediction, “Things ought to shake out.” I myself would prefer to deal with a fundamental and vexing question: is the harm that both Menand and I describe as affecting individuals and the collectivity just a temporary excess produced by the struggle for equality? Or does it represent, as I believe it does, a departure, a derailing of that struggle, its slide into something that endangers the liberal principles it grew out of? Menand hardly discusses this question. Instead, he bores away determinedly at my credibility, alleging that my “way with the facts” is a “little troubling.” It would be tedious to reply to every allegation. Let me go into a few of them in detail to show that my account, contrary to what Menand would have you believe, is accurate and reliable. Indeed, except for one minor instance, every single one of Menand’s allegations of error is groundless.

Menand makes a great deal of what he sees as a grave omission in my account of an article in The New York Times about the low numbers of women full professors in the Ivy League. In fact, the omission, as it were, does not exist. The very passage that Menand accuses me of leaving out is not left out at all!

The article in question, entitled “Rare in Ivy League: Women Who Work as Full Professors,” reports that women are still dramatically underrepresented at the top levels of academic life, especially in the prestige institutions. “Change has come slowly,” the article states, in part because the male holders of power maintain a subtle climate of discrimination in which women feel themselves worn down. I maintain, contrary to the claims of the article, but not always contrary to the data contained in it, that change has been very rapid. Indeed, I show figures indicating that change for women in academic life has come with something like revolutionary speed.

Menand correctly notes that the Times article is for me an illustration of the way in which the mainstream press seems to lose its normal attitude of skepticism when confronted with claims of discrimination. In order to make my argument more persuasive, Menand says, I fail to report two paragraphs in the thirty-three-paragraph article that show a skepticism “identical” to the skepticism that I express. In them, Daniel S. Hamermesh, an economist then at Michigan State University, is quoted to the effect that the low numbers of women in the top academic slots are not due to discrimination but simply reflect their numbers at each level of the academic pipeline. Women make up only 10 percent or so of full professors, and they got about 10 percent of the Ph.D.’s twenty years or so ago. Now, they are 30 percent of the assistant and associate professors, so, with time, their percentages in the higher ranks should increase proportionately.

This passage, which is supposedly left out, is cited on page 137 of my book:

Even the Times article reported that at the levels of assistant and associate professors, women are already about one-third of the total. Remember that argument to the effect that since women and minorities will have trouble identifying with their white male professors, the shortage will be prolonged? And yet by the newspaper’s own evidence the shortage is rapidly being made up.

My whole point was that the article’s “own evidence” should have called into question the thesis it defends—but did not. The Hamermesh opinion was that very evidence. Menand, moreover, is wrong to say that mere inclusion bespeaks an attitude of skepticism. There is a semiotics of newspaper writing. The paragraph introducing Hamermesh contains the phrase: “Some react defensively to queries about hiring.” The signal to the reader is not to take Hamermesh seriously, that only “defensive” people would hold his views, that he is mentioned only to satisfy the technical requirement of balance. And, indeed, it is impossible to read the entire article, from the headline to its assertion that the “all male tradition of the Ivy League still haunts” women, without seeing that it does not support the Hamermesh point of view in the slightest.

Menand does identify one actual mistake. It is true that in the 100 pages of the Wellesley Center for Research on Women’s report on how girls are “shortchanged” in schools, I did miss the brief references on page 25 and 26 to the fact that in math and science the scores of both American boys and girls are lower than those of their foreign counterparts. Menand then exaggerates the importance of these sentences, trying to make it appear as though the authors of the Wellesley Center report actually take account of the information in them. They don’t, and they certainly don’t, contrary to what Menand implies, give any consideration at all to the argument I was making in the book: that more rigorous education for all students, not more feminist education for girls, is what is needed.

On the other hand, when Menand discovers a Washington Post article that gave balanced treatment to the Wellesley Report, adducing it as yet more suppression of evidence on my part, he is not so much revealing a distortion by me as he is showing the extent to which he deforms my argument. He fails to note that I cite two other articles, in Newsday and Fortune Magazine, that also showed skepticism about the report. Including one more article with some critical distance in the large number of articles without critical distance would not have altered my overall conclusion about the absence of critical distance when claims of discrimination are made. In the same chapter as my description of press coverage of the report on shortchanged girls is my account of the egregiously misleading reports on racism by the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence and the way they have been swallowed whole by the press. Menand does not see fit to mention this.

Menand’s determination to find mistakes leads him often to ignore the main issues and to focus on subsidiary ones, as he does when he turns with yet more dubious assertions of error to my account of the battle over the curriculum at the University of Texas. The real point here is that freshman composition programs across the country are dominated by people who, in their effort to instill them with political virtue, have made them narrow, tendentious, politically orthodox, and therefore of dubious educational value. The Texas example was, I thought, also a good illustration of the way the dictatorship of virtue operates because the chief opponent of the curriculum change, Alan Gribben, was ostracized and persecuted by the rest of the English department faculty and its chairman. Menand passes like a speeding bullet over most of this and focuses on a secondary matter—the position in the affair of the American Association of University Professors. I write that the AAUP, an organization that should have moved to protect Gribben’s academic freedom, took “the other side” in the matter, as did the Modern Language Association. According to Menand, the AAUP made no investigation of the Texas matter and therefore took no side whatsoever.

My account (based largely on an interview with AAUP president Barbara Bergmann) includes this unambiguous statement on page 339: “In the end, the AAUP never formally investigated Texas.” So, needless to say, I recognized that no formal investigation had taken place, so there could have been no formal taking of sides. But consider the situation. Just at the time that Gribben was one of the most written-about critics of multiculturalism in the country, the Texas matter came to Bergmann’s attention. She considered an investigation (not so much of the charge that Gribben’s academic freedom was being violated, but that some wrong had been done to the English department that was persecuting him), but when she turned the matter over to a subordinate, what resulted was not a report on Texas but a statement published in the AAUP’s official journal Academe condemning critics of political correctness (in other words, people like Gribben) for bearing an “only partly concealed animus toward equal opportunity.”

Menand’s rather technical argument is that the committee that put out that report did not speak for the AAUP as a whole. How strange that, in the wake of the statement in Academe, the former chairmen of the very committees that Menand finds relevant wrote to the journal complaining that the ad hoc committee had been permitted to speak for the organization as a whole. Even they thought that the organization had taken an official position on political correctness. Menand’s excuse for the AAUP taking no action—that it does not intervene when faculty governance procedures are underway—makes no sense, since the AAUP could have acted after the procedures had been completed. And, his statement that a year later the organization disavowed campus speech codes is irrelevant. Speech codes were not at issue at Texas. The plain fact is that the AAUP failed to look into Gribben’s persecution within his own department. In that sense, I believe, it was complicit in that persecution and, especially given that timely statement in Academe, it did, in effect, “take the other side” in the matter.

Menand goes on and on about the AAUP making it appear as though a major goal of my book is to criticize it, when, in fact, the only place I talk about the AAUP in any detail at all is in the Texas matter. Still, concern for the AAUP brings Menand to another of my stories of scholarly persecution, the firing by Dallas Baptist University of two professors, David Ayers and John Jeffrey, after Ayers ran afoul of the campus feminists. Menand suggests that the two men were fired after Ayers refused to apologize to a feminist adversary, an apology deemed at Christian DBU to be the way to resolve conflicts among “Christian brothers and sisters.” My explanation of the matter as a reflection of a kind of fear of feminism is probably incorrect, Menand says.

It would seem to me, however, that firing two faculty members who did no wrong (according, as I wrote, to the AAUP guidelines) and had nothing to apologize for is a funny way of defending against “unChristian behavior.” Why didn’t the administration demand that the two sides apologize to each other, since, in fact, the campus feminists were saying rather nasty things about Ayers, which is what provoked him to his one sharp comment about the feminists? And let’s remember, the dean ordered Jeffrey to carry out an “investigation” of Ayers. He fired Jeffrey for refusing to follow that order. But he also fired Ayers, coincidentally the only outspoken critic of feminist scholarship on campus, even though Jeffrey’s failure to obey orders meant that no investigation about Ayers had been carried out. And Menand says that the action was motivated solely by a commitment to Christian brotherhood? Come on.

There is more to say about Menand’s allegations of error, but enough. Let’s turn to his other major point of disagreement with Dictatorship of Virtue, which concerns the cases where people have reacted savagely to what Menand calls “trivial affronts to their self-esteem.” Menand argues that I seem unable to distinguish “the innocuous from the objectionable” or “the objectionable from the more objectionable,” yet it is on the ability to make these distinctions that “the credibility of a book about multiculturalism depends.”

Living in a racially diverse society, especially when one race has been oppressed, of course requires an ear for the objectionable. Still, I am confused by Menand’s critique. He himself talks about the “climate of aggravation” encouraged by multiculturalism and he seems also to worry that the impulse to see unpardonable offense in the normal roughness of daily life has given rise to a certain censoriousness. Indeed, he declares that it would be “fatal” to make any compromises over the principle of free speech “simply because one has the upper hand politically.” And yet, despite these ringing statements, Menand seems in a muddle. While he deplores censoriousness in theory, he condones it in some of the specific cases described in my book, justifying himself by incomplete and misleading presentations of the evidence.

One of these cases, which Menand takes up early on in his review, is that of Murray Dolfman at the University of Pennsylvania. Dolfman was a twenty-year veteran of the Wharton School at Penn who had consistently excellent student evaluations and high course attendance. Teaching a class on the abolition of involuntary servitude, Dolfman expressed astonishment that black students did not know which amendment to the Constitution had abolished this practice. Dolfman said that he, as a Jew, was an ex-slave who celebrated Passover every year; he was surprised that black students, also ex-slaves, did not celebrate the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. These statements, and his request that a black student stand up and read the text of the amendment in class, eventually gave rise to a ferocious campaign against Dolfman. The university administration, led by President Sheldon Hackney, now chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, demanded that he apologize even before an investigation had been carried out. Leading faculty members on the University Council called for his suspension from teaching, also before an investigation, on the grounds that Dolfman presented a “clear and present danger” to his students. Eventually, Dolfman was suspended from teaching for a semester, his return to class conditional on attending workshops in sensitivity and racial awareness.

Menand does allow in passing that the university and the faculty behaved badly and unfairly to Dolfman. But his main comment on this matter is that Dolfman’s behavior in class was “grotesque,” and my failure to see it as such shows that I lack a sympathetic understanding of the feelings of black students (he might have mentioned here my rather lengthy interview of the head of the black students’ association at Penn, which might indicate some interest on my part in the feelings of black students, but he does not).

But Menand ignores the sequence of events, which suggest that the campaign against Dolfman did not stem from some immediate and outraged reaction to his “grotesque” classroom behavior, but represented the way in which a manufactured sort of racial rage was used to advance the interests of the multiculturalist bureaucracy. Immediately after his class, when some black students complained to him about his remarks, Dolfman, as I wrote (though Menand does not mention this), apologized right away for any offense he had given. There was then an unexplained three month delay before campus demonstrations began. The protesters, urged on by the false allegation, made by some students and faculty members, that Dolfman’s remark about ex-slaves had been repeated, claimed that the entire university was saturated with racism and they laid out the usual panoply of multiculturalist demands, including more hiring of black faculty and compulsory sensitivity training for everybody. Years later, the student affairs office was still citing an unnamed professor’s “repeated” use of the term “exslaves” to refer to black students in class, as an example of the kind of racist expression that could occur at Penn, even though the official inquest into the Dolfman matter found that he had used the expression only once. And so, while, as I said in my account of this, Dolfman could certainly be criticized for a “lapse in judgment” in class that fateful day, the extent to which students were “upset” does not seem very central to what happened later.

In any case, what if I had dwelt more on Dolfman’s lapse of judgment and condemned him more vigorously, thereby showing my instinct for “distinguishing the innocuous from the objectionable” and, according to Menand, becoming a credible commentator on multiculturalism? Would that have justified the administration’s and the faculty’s craven and obsequious handling of the matter? I don’t believe so. Indeed, what is surprising here is that Menand, despite the lip service he pays to the climate of aggravation spawned by multiculturalism, seems to have such an underdeveloped sense of outrage when outrageous things are done in the name of virtue.

Menand’s turn away from the persecutions of those who have stumbled into the judgment chambers of political correctness to the degree of offense the persecuted have given exemplifies the very habit of mind that I describe in Dictatorship of Virtue. It is tempting to ask what he would want if he, for some remark made in class, was chased from the university. Would he want others to defend his academic rights? Or would he rather that somebody first calibrated his statements on the innocuousness-objectionability scale? Well, Menand’s smoothly reassuring prediction should put us all at ease. Things will shake themselves out.

Richard Bernstein

New York City

Louis Menand replies:

The thesis of Mr. Bernstein’s book is not that excesses have occurred. No one doubts that they have. Its thesis is that there is a widespread and systematic effort to promote a militant multiculturalist agenda, and that the press, professional organizations, and even the administrations of religious universities are complicitous in it. I think this thesis is far-fetched, and in almost every case in which I looked at the evidence myself, I found Mr. Bernstein’s reporting selective and one-sided and his conclusions tendentious. Since he has nothing new or interesting to say about the reasons for the excesses that have occurred, it seemed to me that his book did not constitute a useful contribution to the debate over multicultural issues.

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