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The Culture Wars

Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future

by Richard Bernstein
Knopf, 367 pp., $25.00

Richard Bernstein is a reporter for The New York Times, where he was, for four years, national cultural correspondent. In 1991, he went on leave from the paper in order to research and write this book. Dictatorship of Virtue is an analysis of the phenomenon known as “multiculturalism,” informed by a wide range of examples. Bernstein was a witness to some of the incidents he describes; when he was not, he conducted interviews with people involved, followed press accounts, and dug up collateral material. A large number of his stories concern, as one would expect, educational institutions; but he has found evidence of what he regards as multiculturalist thinking in workplaces, museums, government agencies, and the press as well. Very little in the book is presented merely anecdotally or—even in the case of stories already widely publicized—at second-hand, from some other journalist’s account. Almost everything bears the stamp of fresh and unusually detailed reporting.

At the same time, Bernstein is entirely forthright about his own views. He editorializes freely throughout, and he is quite frank about his opinion of multiculturalism. This can be described by saying that he compares it three times to Soviet totalitarianism, three times to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and four times to the Terror (to which, of course, his title is an allusion). He is quick to note, in each case, that multiculturalism is not on the same scale as these other atrocities. On the other hand, they are pretty much the only analogies he draws.

There is a very broad sense in which almost everyone today (or almost everyone likely to be a reader of Bernstein’s book) is some kind of a multiculturalist, and this includes Bernstein himself, who expresses his respect for cultural diversity and his support for programs like affirmative action. In this most inclusive sense, multiculturalism means something like the following: a person’s race, gender, or sexual orientation should be noticed when the difference noticing it would make is a positive one, but it should not be noticed when the difference noticing it would make is negative.

Many people feel, for example, that it is a good thing for one of the justices on the United States Supreme Court (assuming he or she is qualified in every other respect) to be African American, on grounds that an African American is likely, for obvious historical reasons, to have a special perspective on constitutional issues, and it is important for that perspective to be represented on the Court. But if someone were to refer negatively to an opinion written by this justice as “an African-American perspective on the law,” most people would consider the remark offensive, since it would mean noticing race in a way that implies an accusation of bias—even though “bias” was, in a sense, exactly what that justice was expected to contribute to the Court’s deliberations.

It’s easy to see how distinctions of this sort can get people tied up in knots, and how quickly disputes over them can become sophistical, since one person’s idea of a positive recognition of difference (“It’s great to have a woman on the team!”) can be someone else’s idea of sexism. Many of the celebrated controversies in the vast journalistic literature on multiculturalism arose out of this kind of confusion. Eden Jacobowitz, the University of Pennsylvania student accused of racial harassment for calling a group of African- American women whose noise was disturbing him “water buffalo,” explained that the term was not racist because it was an approximate translation of a Hebrew word, beheymah (Jacobowitz was born in Israel), which he would have shouted just as readily if the students bothering him had been white. He regarded himself, in other words, as an equal-opportunity offender. The women he yelled at (understandably, I think) regarded him differently.

The water buffalo case would be much simpler, really, if Jacobowitz had said the term had a racial connotation and defended his right to use it anyway. For once it is clear that Jacobowitz is not a racist, the case falls immediately into the multicultural quicksand: since the women were African American, should Jacobowitz have thought twice about using an expression that might be construed as racially offensive? Or would that have meant noticing the women’s race “negatively,” by treating them differently from noise-makers who were not African American? Was it more insensitive to care about the race of the people annoying him or not to care about it? And if a remark is taken as racist, is it ipso facto a racist remark? There are no legally meaningful answers to hypotheticals of this kind; and although Jacobowitz was given a rather hard time about an incident that seems to have been blown absurdly out of proportion—an official of something called the Judicial Inquiry Office at Penn pressed him to settle the complaint by, among other things, presenting a “program for living in a diverse community environment”—the charges against him were ultimately dropped.

Universities seem to have a special talent for dealing with these disputes in the most ham-handed way imaginable. But you don’t have to be a student or a dean to feel bombarded by them. You only have to turn on the television. Was it legitimate for Clarence Thomas to “play the race card” after listening to Anita Hill’s testimony against him? Was Hill justified in feeling “sexually harassed” by the behavior she alleged? Is it inappropriate to raise the subject of race in a discussion of the O.J. Simpson case? Would the first Rodney King jury have let the officers off if King had been a white man? If Robert Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio” photographs are objectionable, is it because they depict sexual acts, or because they depict homosexual acts, or because they depict sado-masochistic homosexual acts? Exactly how solicitous are we supposed to be about the self-esteem of sado-masochists?

These are possibly questions a society with a lot of other problems shouldn’t be quite so obsessed with. But we’re obsessed with them anyway, and the consequence is a nearly complete lack of consensus about what’s tolerant and fair and what’s fanatical and “politically correct”; about what’s legitimate criticism or distaste and what’s racist, sexist, or homophobic; about what’s an excellent pickup line and what’s grounds for a lawsuit. It’s not just that people don’t want to get hauled up before some disciplinary tribunal for what they thought was a perfectly innocent remark; it’s also that people honestly don’t want to give offense when none is intended (and also, I suppose, want to be sure that they have given offense when it is intended), and they would like to know just where reasonable people think the line ought to be drawn.

The credibility of a book about multiculturalism depends to a considerable extent, therefore, on the author’s instinct for distinguishing the innocuous from the objectionable—or, perhaps more often, the objectionable from the more objectionable. Readers not already confident of their own instincts in these matters need to feel that the writer sees the merits in the cases he discusses in roughly the way they would see them, and that he won’t excuse offensive behavior just because the response to that behavior is also offensive. I think my attitude toward multiculturalism’s claims to represent a cogent and useful educational and social philosophy is fairly skeptical, but I had a very hard time entering into Bernstein’s sense of some of the situations he describes.

Bernstein is generally interested in cases in which people seem to have overreacted to inadvertent, misunderstood, or trivial affronts to their self-esteem. But his idea of what constitutes overreaction is sometimes hard to credit because his idea of what constitutes an affront seems rather limited. He tells us, in his opening pages, about an editorial run by the Philadelphia Inquirer proposing to decrease the number of poor, specifically black children by offering welfare mothers added benefits if they agree to use a contraceptive called Norplant, which makes women infertile for five years. Bernstein regards this rather eugenicist and racially targeted proposition as “the normal expression of opinion,” and he cannot understand why both black and white reporters became extremely upset about it,and why the paper decided to run an apology.

Elsewhere, he discusses the case of a teacher of legal studies, named Murray Dolfman, at the University of Pennsylvania, who asked his class which amendment to the Constitution deals with the matter of involuntary servitude, and, when no one answered, remarked that if anyone should know, the black students should. “He then,” according to the school’s report on the matter, “asked the black students in the class, individually and seriatim, if they could recite the 13th amendment. When none could do so, Mr. Dolfman asked one black student to stand and read the amendment out loud. Mr. Dolfman then expressed surprise that while he, as a Jew and a ‘former slave,’ celebrated Passover, the black students, whom he likewise called ‘former slaves,’ or ‘ex-slaves,’ did not celebrate the passage of the 13th amendment.”

Bernstein regards this as something that “could certainly be seen as a lapse of judgment,” mitigated by the fact that Dolfman “had, as it were, made common cause with the black students” by identifying himself as a “former slave” as well. But the whole episode seems grotesque. You ought not to call on individual students, chosen by the color of their skin, to recite a text they have already told you they cannot even identify. And it is obviously entirely disingenuous to express surprise at the fact that black Americans do not “celebrate” the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (which does not, after all, say a word about race, and which did not exactly lead African Americans to the land of milk and honey). To look at a group of young black Americans and see “ex-slaves” is similarly simple-minded. Involuntary servitude is not part of the family history of every black person in America; these students are, in any event, entitled to adopt whatever intellectual and moral relation to their various pasts they choose. The remark about Passover could easily have been taken to mean, “You people don’t even know your own history.”

The reaction to the Inquirer editorial does not seem to me, even on Bernstein’s account, to have been inappropriate. Among other things, the paper decided to require that editorials on controversial topics be approved in the future by the entire thirteen-member editorial board. Bernstein complains that this gives “veto power to the board’s three black members.” True enough. It also gives veto power to any one of the board’s ten non-black members. In Dolfman’s case, the response by some members of the university community was plainly excessive, with other professors calling for him to be disciplined even before an investigation could be completed, and with a one-semester suspension and “sensitivity and racial awareness sessions” being ordered. But I find it easier than Bernstein does to understand why people became so upset.

At the same time, Bernstein is rather quick to take offense when he senses an affront to his own beliefs. He attacks, for example, the National Gallery’s exhibition Circa 1492, which displayed artifacts representative of the state of world culture in the year of Columbus’s voyage, on grounds that it “refused to make any judgment about the greater historical significance of the West, even though it was the West that was … demonstrating itself to be the most dynamic and Promethean of the world’s great civilizations.” This strikes me as applying the same sort of political test to art and history that Bernstein deplores when it is done in the name of multiculturalism. Still, one reason for writing a book on this subject is that opinion is unsettled, so other readers may find themselves in greater sympathy with Bernstein’s instincts than I did.

Bernstein is not just collecting stories, however. He has a thesis, which is that we are being threatened by “a growing multicultural bureaucracy”—of diversity trainers, college deans, organized feminists, experts on Afrocentric curricula, educational counselors, arts administrators, and what he calls “the academic club of the New Consciousness,” people who are peddling not a simple appreciation of diversity, but “a radical political ideology.” “Multiculturalism is a movement of the left,” he says, “emerging from the counterculture of the 1960s.” It demonizes white heterosexual men and condemns Western culture as racist, sexist, and imperialist, while claiming all manner of imaginary virtue for non-Western, non-patriarchal, and minority cultures. This ideology, Bernstein argues, represents the perversion of the principles of the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the same way that Robespierre represented the perversion of the principles of the Revolution of 1789.

I don’t think the counterculture had a thing to do with it, but I think Bernstein is right to regard multiculturalism as both an extension of and a reaction against the American liberation movements of the 1960s. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the gay liberation movement were about equity: they based their moral appeal on the principles of liberty and equality that democracies are committed to uphold—the right to vote, to have equal access to educational and economic opportunity, to live where one chooses, and so forth. Those equity movements have not been fully successful, particularly in the case of gay Americans; but, as Bernstein insists repeatedly, they have transformed American life.

Multiculturalism, though, is not about equity. It’s about culture. Its moral appeal is based on the feeling of many women and gay and non-white Americans that although legal barriers to equality may have been largely removed, cultural barriers remain. When, in the 1970s and 1980s, women and African Americans started showing up in professional settings like newsrooms and universities, they were entering environments that had been overwhelmingly white and male not for decades, or for generations, but forever. In many cases, I think it’s fair to say, they encountered an attitude that said, in effect, “We attach not the slightest racial or sexual significance to the ways we have of doing things, and we don’t see why you should either. Those ways work fine for us, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t work just as well for you. So you can check your race and gender at the door (or, if you prefer, across the quad at our brand-new race and gender studies centers, where we would not dream of disturbing you). Welcome to the club.”

But many people in these non-traditional groups felt that the old ways were racially and sexually self-serving—or, at a minimum, were oblivious of the interests and perspectives other people might have—and that they amounted to a subtle form of exclusion which antidiscrimination policies of the civil rights type could do very little to remedy. Some people came to believe, in fact, that it was precisely rights like “one man, one vote” and freedom of speech—rights that had been so crucial to progress in the equity era—that were blocking the path to true equality now, since they protected people whose views were discriminatory, and since women and members of racial minorities, though now at last significantly present, were still invariably outnumbered. The frustration—mixed, as Bernstein says, with anti-liberal ideologies inherited from earlier radicalisms—has fueled an assault on virtually everything in American culture associated with heterosexual white men as racist, sexist, and homophobic, and has led to the climate of aggravation that moved Bernstein to write this book.

I think it was inevitable that new groups entering the professional culture would ask, about the standards and the mores and the “great books” they found already in place there, “Why are these things good for us?” And I think that a culture that cannot answer this question reasonably and persuasively, or see that there are indeed other ways of doing things and other books to talk about, is not a culture entirely worth defending. But I agree with Bernstein that this questioning has been the excuse for the promulgation of a shallow, reflexive, self-righteous political orthodoxy.

I think he is correct in complaining that the multiculturalist call for “diversity” is often accompanied by rigid intolerance for diversity of opinion. I agree, as well, that efforts to suspend the principles of free speech and due process in the name of “politically correct” outcomes are destructive both to the people they victimize and to the people who pursue them. As a merely practical matter, the fish caught in the nets of “speech codes” are (like Penn’s water buffalo man) invariably absurdly small; and the notion that the first thing to do upon hearing an offensive remark is to run and report the matter to a dean does not exactly prepare students for life in an open society, in which deans and sensitivity trainers are not available to silence speakers we find obnoxious. What is more dangerous, though, is the abandonment of the principle of free expression itself, which is designed precisely to protect minority opinion, and which it is fatal to compromise simply because one temporarily has the upper hand politically. The censor always rings twice.

And I think, like Bernstein, that the multiculturalist categories of race, gender, and sexual orientation are deeply factitious as accounts of identity, and that the self-conception they teach to students when they are presented in this monolithic form is pernicious. They sponsor an interest-group politics that is fundamentally inimical to the notion of a commonweal; they repeat exactly the biologically determinist accounts of character they pretend, in their attacks on racism and sexism, to be supplanting; and they promote a medicinal view of culture, by which art and literature can be judged according to whether they are politically “good” or “bad” for you.

Bernstein doesn’t just want to criticize this militant brand of multiculturalism, though. He wants to persuade us that it has become, as he puts it, “the dominant ideology of the late twentieth century.” He thinks that multiculturalism is now the belief system of the baby-boomer “elite,” people who first soured on American values in the 1960s. He wants us to believe that our cultural life is now being run largely by doctrinaire multiculturalists and their bureaucratic facilitators and epigones, and that these people have succeeded in intimidating their critics and in chilling the expression of contradictory views.

This sort of claim is not only a matter of opinion. It requires evidence, and not just of isolated cases. Bernstein has certainly found cases of unjust treatment, of tendentiously politicized curricula, of herd thinking on multicultural issues, and there are undoubtedly many he hasn’t reported on. Even when his sense of what sort of behavior is objectionable seems inadequate, he is right to perceive, in the responses to that behavior, a pattern of prejudging.

One of his stories, for example, a more detailed version of which appeared earlier this year in these pages,1 concerns the disciplining of a tenured professor at the University of New Hampshire, named J. Donald Silva, who was accused of sexual harassment for making bantering remarks with a sexual innuendo (none of which were intended or interpreted as advances) to female students. Two features of the case stand out. The first is the kangaroo nature of the proceedings: Silva was at first suspended by his dean without any investigation at all, and after he was reinstated, following a grievance proceeding, the prosecution of his case was turned over to the head of the school’s Affirmative Action Office, who named a panel consisting of people (including two students) she herself had trained. Silva was not permitted to have his own lawyer. This sort of “hearing,” conducted by members of the university community most interested in silencing those who are skeptical of or resistant to their goals, is a procedure Bernstein has found elsewhere, notably at Penn.

The second significant aspect of the UNH case involves the punishment meted out. This included “counseling sessions,” to be paid for by Silva, with “a licensed and certified counselor selected by the University.” The order dictating Silva’s initial suspension specified that these sessions be with a “psychotherapist.” Bernstein does not tell us what the sessions would have consisted of if Silva had agreed to attend them. But he is right to object to the notion that lapses of what is currently considered appropriate speech (Silva is in his late fifties) must be symptoms of some “condition” for which the invasive procedure of psychotherapy is appropriate. Some people are obnoxious. In a university or any other workplace, a certain degree of cultivated obnoxiousness can be a legitimate cause for intervention. But compelling people to expose their innermost feelings and beliefs to approved experts as a way of punishing them for their offensiveness, or of “treating” them so that they may become more acceptable members of the group, is a violation of their autonomy.

Still, Bernstein is doing more than compiling stories. He is claiming the existence of a systematic and widespread effort to silence dissent, and so he tries to show us not just that various professors and personnel managers and performance artists are spreading the multiculturalist virus, but that the media and some national cultural organizations are complicit in furthering their agenda. The purpose of all his reporting was, clearly, to provide this evidence; but I found Bernstein’s way with the facts a little troubling.

In 1993, The New York Times ran a front-page story under the headline: “Rare in Ivy League: Women Who Work As Full Professors.” The article surveys the professional situation of academic women nationally and in the Ivy League in particular, and it notes dissatisfaction with the promotion rate of women and reports some of the reasons people have suggested for it, including “subtle discrimination” and a kind of institutional hostility to women in formerly all-male academies. “The Times presented all of this as established truth rather than the debatable propositions that they are,” Bernstein charges, and he goes on to provide his own numbers to demonstrate that the overall employment figures for female professors are consistent with the rate at which women have been awarded doctorates since 1970. “Since it takes twenty years or so to rise up the academic ranks to be a full professor,” he argues, “the representation of women at that level does not seem, contrary to the Times report, to be due to obstacles to advancement.”

But the Times article devotes two paragraphs to the views of Daniel S. Hamermesh, an economist then at Michigan State University, whose own study shows that

on average, women make up 10 percent of the professors in the Ivy League. In the next two ranks—associate professor, which also usually carries tenure, and assistant professor, which can lead to tenure—women are much better represented, with an average of 30 percent of each of those positions. These figures lead universities to hold out hope that, in time, women will move into the most senior positions.

It takes a lot of time,” Hamermesh is quoted as explaining, “to feed through the academic system.”2

It is one thing to identify a “multiculturalist” complaint—for example, that the reason there are relatively few female full professors is that women are discriminated against—and to produce data you believe show that the charge is unfounded. But Bernstein wants to do more than that: he wants to convict the press of multiculturalist fellow-traveling, and this leads him to ignore evidence—in this case, the Times‘s citation of an explanation identical with his own—that might make his claim less persuasive.

In 1992, to take another example of what Bernstein regards as media complicity, an organization called the American Association of University Women issued a report it had commissioned which showed that girls are “shortchanged,” because of bias and discrimination, in the American school system. Many newspapers covered the report on their front pages. In taking issue with the report, Bernstein takes issue with the coverage as well.

The absence of skepticism shown toward the report on girls was remarkable even for journalists operating under deadline pressure,” he tells us.

The organization that actually carried out the study was not some neutral institution with an unimpeachable record of disinterested scholarship on the status of women. The Wellesley Center for Research on Women, while not perhaps widely known to reporters, might by its very name and location have suggested a certain partisan attitude on subjects central to feminists’ concerns…. [But] none of the press reports identified the Wellesley Center as feminist. Few of them (with the New York Times again an exception) sought any opinions contrary to those in the report.

Now here is the lead paragraph of the article in The Washington Post—a paper whose very name and location, to borrow a phrase, might have suggested a certain partisan attitude:

The most comprehensive report to assess the gender gap in American schools found widespread bias against girls in tests, textbooks and teaching practices—findings that set off an immediate controversy among educators.

The second paragraph quotes the president of the AAUW, defending the report. The next four paragraphs summarize the views of people who dispute its conclusions, including that of the Department of Education, which said the report “lacked perspective and hard data,” and comments by Diane Ravitch, then assistant secretary of education, who asserts that “this is a period in history in which there have been the most dramatic strides for women,” and who provides two paragraphs’ worth of statistics to back up that claim.3

Bernstein says he is particularly concerned that, whatever its merits, the report’s focus is on the wrong problem. “Absent from the report, and from the press accounts of it, were some figures on a far more alarming inequity in the educational system,” he explains. “A far larger gap than that between American boys and girls exists between American students of both sexes and the students of many other countries…in math and science,” and he cites some international rankings released by the Department of Education suggesting the existence of such a gap.

But Bernstein’s initial assertion is false. The AAUW report does include figures on international rankings in math and science, and it expresses concern about the standing of American students. It also emphasizes quite explicitly the importance of placing statistics indicating a gender gap between American boys and girls in that larger context.4

If, by noting the absence of figures reflecting those international rankings in newspaper stories on the AAUW report, Bernstein means to imply that the press is eager to run stories alleging gender discrimination but is less interested in stories about more dire inadequacies in the American educational system, this implication is false as well. The Post ran its article on the study of international achievement in math and science from which Bernstein draws his figures on the front page. (“Students Test Below Average: In World, US Fares Poorly in Math.”) The Times‘s story appeared on page A14; it cites the president of the Educational Testing Service as warning “that the rankings were suspect because of differences in the student populations tested.”5 This “contrary opinion” is missing from Bernstein’s recitation.

Bernstein also maintains that organizations whose duty it is to protect dissent are themselves dominated by multiculturalist partisans. One of these is the American Association of University Professors, whose mission is the protection of academic freedom. But here, again, he has been selective in his reporting.

He devotes his final chapter to a controversy at the University of Texas at Austin over a proposal to make all sections of a required composition course adhere to a uniform curriculum, which was to consist of readings on racial and sexual discrimination. The proposal was approved by the department and accepted by the administration. But a few professors objected, on the legitimate grounds that it was a bad idea to impose an overt political content on a course 40 percent of Texas students have to take. They carried their campaign to the university at large. Memoranda and petitions were circulated, student journalists got involved, and the atmosphere became, by all accounts, extremely contentious. One of the dissenting professors wrote a letter to the local newspaper in Austin, in which he announced that the approval of the course meant that students at Texas “will begin having their social attitudes as well as their essays graded by English Department instructors in what has to be the most massive effort at thought-control ever attempted on the campus.” National attention followed,6 and the proposal was eventually dropped. The course has never been given.

Bernstein’s account makes it plain that there is blame enough to go around, and that disputants on both sides had reason to feel that their academic freedom had been chilled—in particular, by the practices of accusing colleagues of unprofessionalism and misrepresentation and of conducting the debate about the course in public forums that were hardly appropriate for a clarifying discussion. Alan Gribben, the professor who had written the letter accusing his colleagues of wanting to exercise “thought-control,” felt so ostracized by the other members of his department after the affair that he left Texas for a less prestigious school. “One of the most disturbing things about Gribben’s case,” Bernstein writes, “is that none of the major academic organizations, those supposedly watchful for freedom of expression, took up his cause. Indeed, they took the other side in the Texas battle.” The AAUP is one of the two organizations he includes in this indictment.

The AAUP’s president, according to Bernstein, “tried to interest the staff at the AAUP, particularly the staff of Committee A, which is concerned with academic freedom, in investigating the situation at Texas. Ernst Benjamin, who is the senior permanent member of the AAUP staff, got together a committee to look into [the Texas course] and a few other matters…. [But] the committee visited no campuses. It met for a single day and then issued a report, not on Texas or any other university, but on the subject of political correctness…. The AAUP committee, supposedly considering the imbroglio at Texas, ended up making a pronouncement on political correctness in entire agreement with the PC point of view.” (This report accused opponents of political correctness of being motivated by an “only partly-concealed animosity toward equal opportunity” for women and minority group members on campus; it was published in the AAUP’s journal, Academe.) Under these circumstances, Bernstein concludes, Alan Gribben “was not likely to think that if he brought a complaint to the AAUP, it would get an impartial hearing.”

But his account is incomplete. The committee which produced the report on political correctness (though Bernstein does not make this clear) was not connected with Committee A, the group officially charged with investigating violations of academic freedom for the AAUP. It was a small, ad hoc group, appointed by Ernst Benjamin at the request of the AAUP’s president; it was not investigating the Texas incident, but was responding to the debate over “political correctness” generally; and the release of its report was not authorized by any standing committee of the AAUP. Committee A had declined to investigate the Texas case in part because the dispute was still in the internal faculty governance system at the university, which is ordinarily allowed to run its course before the AAUP intervenes. When the AAUP’s executive council met shortly after the release of the report on political correctness, it ordered that ad hoc committee reports could not in the future be released without the approval of a standing committee; a forum consisting of responses critical of the report was published in Academe; and a year later the AAUP issued a statement unequivocally condemning campus speech codes. It is misleading to say that the AAUP “took the other side in the Texas battle”: it specifically did not take any side. And it is wrong to suggest that the AAUP is a politically partisan body.7

Bernstein’s report on the Texas affair is also important because of a story he tells, elsewhere in his book, about an incident at Dallas Baptist University. In 1992, an assistant professor there named David Ayers was invited to speak at a faculty colloquium. He gave a talk critical of feminism, and, since it excited interest, a response to it, by an English professor named Deborah McCollister, was arranged and was presented at another meeting of the same faculty gathering. Following the second talk, Ayers distributed copies of his article and of McCollister’s remarks in class and made comments critical of her views.

Ayers had distributed McCollister’s remarks without asking her permission.8 The talks were evidently supposed to be closed to students, and when news of Ayers’s conduct reached the ears of the administration, the dean of his college, John Jeffrey, was ordered by the vice-president for academic affairs to conduct an investigation, and it was made clear to him that he was expected to arrange an apology to McCollister. This Jeffrey declined to do, citing the principle of academic freedom. When it became apparent that neither he nor Ayers intended to act as the administration wanted, both were advanced a year’s pay and dismissed. “It seems that the administration was so terrified of feminist wrath at Dallas Baptist University,” Bernstein says, “that they preferred to pay Ayers and Jeffrey full salaries to do nothing rather than have them around and risk further debate about the feminist ideology.” Bernstein tells us that he has drawn his description of this incident from an article by Joseph Salemi, which appeared in a magazine, not widely known, called Measure, “modifying it somewhat in light of my own interviews.”

Now, Dallas Baptist University is a religious institution. The administration’s instructions to Jeffrey indicated that an apology was the appropriate way to resolve a dispute between “Christian brothers and sisters,” and although Salemi, in the article Bernstein cites, makes many unsubstantiated claims about the influence of radical feminists at Dallas Baptist, the evidence makes it seem most likely that the dismissals were prompted by the conviction that a refusal to apologize under those circumstances was un-Christian. I doubt that feminism had anything to do with the matter.

But the dismissals bear all the marks of a violation of academic freedom. In fact, Jeffrey and Ayers appealed on those grounds to the AAUP, which immediately intervened on their behalf, expressing concern in letters to the university’s administration and dispatching an investigative team to the campus. The AAUP’s intervention ended when Ayers and Jeffrey agreed to a substantial cash settlement with the university, with which they were evidently happy, for their lawyer sent a letter to the AAUP stating that the matter could not have been resolved so satisfactorily without its efforts on his clients’ behalf. Having gone out of his way elsewhere in his book to charge the AAUP with multiculturalist bias, however, Bernstein never mentions its role in the DBU case. But he knows about that role for the same reason I do: because it is reported in Joseph Salemi’s article.9

Dictatorship of Virtue is a baffling book. Bernstein accuses multiculturalists of distortion, exaggeration, and the suppression of evidence that shows things are not as bad as they say they are, but he resorts to the same methods himself. “It takes no bravery to be a multiculturalist,” he writes. There are some circles in which that may be so. But there are other circles in which it takes no bravery to attack multiculturalism, and the second kind of circles are still a lot bigger than the first. It really is preposterous for Bernstein to pretend that his colleagues in the mainstream press are insufficiently critical of multiculturalism. The mainstream media has been hammering away at this stuff incessantly since the early years of the Bush administration. The subject could use the attention of a journalist who can distinguish hyperbole from principle on both sides, and who does not feel the need to manhandle—excuse me, to personhandle—the evidence in order to give his book an exciting thesis.

A great deal of multicultural talk is facile posturing; but outrage at the mere idea that cultural assumptions might be questioned only encourages greater stridency. American life is not, contrary to multiculturalist boilerplate, more diverse today than ever. From a bird’s eye view, it is far more integrated and homogenous than ever. Thirty years ago men and women, black and white Americans, homosexual and heterosexual people, and members of many ethnic groups tended to lead, culturally and socially, largely segregated lives. Today they do so, for the most part, only as a matter of choice.

Down on the ground, though, there is a lot of friction, since people who have never worked side by side before are finding themselves in situations of professional intimacy unimaginable (or only imaginable) a generation ago. We can use more honesty and flexibility in adapting to these changes than we seem to have in supply at the moment. But given people’s natural desire to live productively together, things ought to shake out. Meanwhile, if Bernstein keeps insisting on finding a radical multiculturalist under every bed in America, he’s going to scare himself silly.

Letters

Culture Wars November 17, 1994

The Culture Wars’: An Exchange November 3, 1994

  1. 1

    Guilty If Charged,” The New York Review, January 13, 1994, pp. 11-13.

  2. 2

    Anthony DePalma, “Rare in Ivy League: Women Who Work As Full Professors,” The New York Times, January 24, 1993, section 1, p. 23.

  3. 3

    Mary Jordan, “Wide Gender Gap Found in Schools,” The Washington Post, February 12, 1992, p. A1.

  4. 4

    How Schools Shortchange Girls: A Study of Major Findings on Girls and Education (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 1992), pp. 25-26.

  5. 5

    Mary Jordan, “Students Test Below Average,” The Washington Post, February 6, 1992, p. A1; “American Children Trail in Math and Science,” The New York Times, February 6, 1992, p. A14.

  6. 6

    Documents relating to the controversy are reprinted in Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses, edited by Paul Berman (Dell, 1992), pp. 249-68.

  7. 7

    Information about the ad hoc report comes from my interview with Linda Ray Pratt, former president of the AAUP. My sense of the absurdity of trying to paint the AAUP as a politically correct body comes from my understanding of the facts, reaffirmed by my own recent experience arranging a lecture series on academic freedom for some of its meetings. This is not a group dedicated to the protection of political correctness.

  8. 8

    McCollister told me she had not intended her talk to be heard by students. She also told me Bernstein never spoke with her.

  9. 9

    Joseph S. Salemi, “Political Correctness at Dallas Baptist University: The Firing of David Ayers and John Jeffrey,” Measure, No. 108 (August- September 1992), pp. 1-13. The article is a polemical account, based on information provided by Ayers and Jeffrey; but it praises the AAUP for responding “promptly and vigorously” to their complaint, and quotes from two of its letters to the DBU administration (p. 11). Information about the settlement is from my interview with Linda Ray Pratt.

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