Originally published in Official Artur Davis
Last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education waded headfirst into the culture wars by terminating one of its bloggers for a column excoriating the black studies discipline and calling for its end. The saga around Naomi Schaeffer Riley has ignited a predictable back-and-forth, from the partly organic, partly organized attack by the left on the original piece, to conservative bloggers who have defended her against political correctness run amuck.
I’m of two minds about the controversy. Most of the assault against Riley does seem like shop-worn viewpoint censorship. As even a liberal critic like Eric Alterman has pointed out, labeling the essay as “hate speech” is a frivolous, overwrought charge, and Alterman is right to recognize that a formal response by the black studies faculty at Northwestern which alludes to past discrimination against black college applicants seemed simultaneously pointless and defensive about the capacities of some of the department’s students—who, of course, are not even all black.
But the Riley essay does not strike me as the best line of defense for admirers of intellectual candor. It is not exactly an exercise in rhetorical grace: there is a talk-radio style bluntness to its 500 odd words that is dependent on name-calling: “left wing victimization claptrap”, “liberal hackery”, a parting shot that practitioners of black studies should defer to “legitimate scholars”. Substantively, the essay’s thesis, that a Chronicle article exposed an intellectual sloppiness in the black studies field, is overly reliant on examples from three dissertations to make a vastly more far-reaching point. Even if two of the papers seem hopelessly polemical and one of them sounds hopelessly opaque, it’s a stretch to indict an entire discipline on such a thin foundation. The whole thing feels like an impressionistic hit dashed off to meet a deadline.
My own instinct is that Riley’s too casual approach to her attack played into the hands of her critics. Her snark and the choice to take a dig at the scholarly capacity of three obscure graduate students has opened her up to the liberal critique of “personal hurtfulness”, a claim that is easy for conservatives to mock but which she shouldn’t have allowed to be a distraction in the debate. Similarly, Riley handed an easy out to the Chronicle by inviting observers to put too much stock in the content of dissertations that she admits she had no opportunity to read and which plainly don’t constitute much of a sample—one more sign of a rushed, careless point trumping a more serious case that she meant to make.
That serious case, by the way, is that political fervor can too often drive out academic rigor, and that the academic left’s empathy with social victims can slide into all of the clichés of victimization. I still recall being stunned when I moderated a law school forum on affirmative action at Howard and heard the audience consternation at a hypothetical that posited that George W. Bush might be reelected; and being just as bothered when the former head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund dismissively refused to answer another query about strategy in the event of a judicial set-back. It was a weirdly contemptuous approach to any outcome that wasn’t the politically desired one, and entirely out of place in a room full of young scholars.
But Riley could have spared herself grief without laying the un-seriousness she describes exclusively on black studies. It’s much deeper and haunts the broader left, from the old Critical Legal Studies camp that flourished in the eighties, to the current leftist fixation with minimizing even mainstream conservatism as racist, homophobic, or a wedge in a “war on women”: the single-mindedness I saw at Howard could have played out on a hundred campuses and on a range of topics.
Is black studies uniquely hostile to opposing points of view? I still wouldn’t know from reading Riley’s missive in the Chronicle, or skimming the dissertation topics she holds up for ridicule; to advance the theory would requiring hearing more about the writings of the discipline’s brand names, not its aspiring PHDs. Would the field benefit from a point of view more critical of the shortcomings in modern liberal domestic policy? It certainly would, and Riley is entirely right to note that the multiple crises in the black community—incarceration, illegitimacy, steep drop-out rates—can’t logically just be chalked up to historical wrongs by racists; to the extent the prevailing view in black studies is that they can, the discipline does a disservice to its own public policy aspirations. And, if Riley is right in her description, it would make intriguing speculation to wonder if the race-centric demonology embraced by new black studies graduates reflects a mindset handed down from the discipline’s intellectual icons, or if it exposes an interesting reflex in what is touted to be the least race conscious generation yet.
But Riley gave most of the hard questions something of a pass. Arguably, by name-calling her way through her critique, Riley does the same kind of thing she laments in her essay: opting for the narrowest, easiest point of blame without holding broader, more complex sources to account. There is a rough irony that her own reductionism inspired an equally simplistic and demagogic campaign against her. It was wrong to fire her, but I fear that Riley set back her own philosophical cause as well.