As regular readers know, I use this column now and then to jot some notes on a book. These do not constitute a proper book review. But sometimes the notes are worthwhile, I think.
I’d very much like to remark on a book by Bruce Bawer, published last year. This one is The Victims’ Revolution. Bawer, if you don’t know him, is one of our finest literary critics and political analysts. He is also uncommonly brave. He writes about the threat of Islamism to our liberal life here in the West, and he does this writing from Scandinavia, where he lives. (Bawer is an American but has lived in Norway for some years.)
This sort of writing wins him no friends — except among people who value the truth, however upsetting it is.
Bawer has the particular gift of shaming people on the left. He asks them, “Won’t you stick up for your own values? Do you realize what the Islamists intend to do to you, and are doing to you already? Do you not have the courage of your convictions? Do you hate the West more than you hate those who would destroy you?”
Among Bawer’s books is While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within.
This new book, The Victims’ Revolution, has a subtitle: “The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind.” You will hear the echo of Allan Bloom’s classic, The Closing of the American Mind. I remember his telling Bill Buckley what he originally wanted to call it: “Souls without Longing.” Bill said, “Oh, what a marvelous title” (or something like that).
How about “Identity Studies”? Bawer devotes chapters to Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Queer Studies, and Chicano Studies. A later chapter is titled, “Studies, Studies Everywhere.” So true.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed Jeb Bush. And I noted that he had majored in Latin American Studies. I said to him (something like), “That’s a pretty lefty major, isn’t it?” He said (something like), “Yes. Aren’t all ‘studies’ lefty?”
If a person reads only the preface and the first chapter of Bawer’s book, he has more than gotten his money’s worth — more than. This is a vital, sparkling, and truth-telling book.
“. . . while Americans lament the loss of shared national values,” says Bawer, “many of them may not recognize the intimate connection between this loss and the changes that have taken place in American higher education over the last generation or so . . .”
In his preface, Bawer does a lot of quoting of a book by the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. I remember how surprised and glad I was to see this book. It was just about the best thing Schlesinger ever did in his life. One of his last acts — one of his last acts of writing — was to cry against the Balkanization that has been warping our country.
“For two centuries,” writes Bawer, “America accomplished something that would have previously seemed impossible: the creation, as Schlesinger put it, ‘of a brand-new national identity by individuals who, in forsaking old loyalties and joining to make new lives, melted away ethnic differences.’”
Glorious (and quaint).
To point out the “miraculous nature” of the American accomplishment, says Bawer,
is not to deny, among other things, the mistreatment of Native Americans and the blight of slavery and racism. It is simply to note that, in a world where violent intergroup enmity and conflict have been the rule rather than the exception, America found a way for increasingly diverse groups of people to live together not only in peace but with a strong sense of shared identity — an identity founded not on ethnicity but on a commitment to the values of individual liberty, dignity, and equality articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Back to Schlesinger for a moment: Possibly the last book Bill Buckley ever read was Schlesinger’s Journals: 1952-2000. He spoke of this book on my last visit with him. Let me quote from some notes I made about Bill, on his passing:
Bill had also been reading Arthur Schlesinger’s diaries — loved them. Was enthralled by them. Said they were absolutely absorbing and delightful, despite the two references to Bill, both of which were mean.
He spoke of writing a big piece on the diaries — something like 20,000 words. Maybe for the New York Review or The Atlantic.
Such a big man, to bear Schlesinger no animus, and to sing his praises.
More Bawer (plus Schlesinger): “The most disastrous by-product of the civil rights movement was multiculturalism, a philosophy that teaches, as Schlesinger put it, ‘that America is not a nation of individuals at all but a nation of groups.’”
I kept writing in the margins of Bawer’s book, “So true.”
Here is a passage that merits a “So true,” probably in all caps:
The problem, to be sure, is not simply a pathological fixation on group identity, but a preoccupation with the historical grievances of certain groups, combined with a virulent hostility to America, which is consistently cast as the prime villain in the histories of these groups and the world at large. If you or I had set out to invent an ideology capable of utterly destroying the America of the Declaration, the Constitution, and the melting pot, we could scarcely have done better.
Bawer has compassion — probably more than I can muster — for those who peddle multiculti nonsense: “I find my heart going out to them. They’ve been trained to parrot jargon, to regurgitate bullet points about Western imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism — and to think that this is what it means to be educated.”
David Pryce-Jones once told me a story about his time at Berkeley. He taught there, at some point during the Vietnam War. One day, he saw one of his best students participating in an anti-war rally. He said to the young man, “Tell me: Can you name the countries that border Vietnam?”
The kid was miffed.
Bawer makes a point far too seldom made: Campus leftists don’t realize “how America-centric they are.” Despite “their rote anti-American rhetoric,” most of the things they have to say “make even the remotest kind of sense” only within “an American context.”
I have discovered this, over the years. Anti-American Americans know very little about the world at large. It would be a shock to them to learn, I bet, that America is one of the least racist nations that have ever existed.
If they really want to know racism, they should try certain places in Africa and the Far East. They also may want to consider the infinite color gradations that Indians seem to discern.
(You know who’s very, very good on this subject? Thomas Sowell. Then again, he’s good on virtually all subjects.)
Bawer writes about a teacher he had in college. Don’t you wish you had had such a teacher, or had one now? I hope you did or do.
“I took a number of courses . . . with the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Louis Simpson, who, in one class meeting that I still recall vividly, leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the desk, sighed, ‘Ah, what to say about this book?’ . . . and for the next hour and fifteen minutes mesmerized us (or me, anyway) . . .” The book was Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. “Simpson (who in 1975, improbable as it sounds nowadays, had made the bestseller lists with a book about Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams) was nothing less than brilliant. This, I remember thinking, is why I came to college.”
Bawer writes that “[i]t is common in the humanities today to refer, as Fanon does, not to ‘democracy’ and ‘Communism’ but to ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism.’” This reminded me of Mark Mazower, a brilliant and leftist historian at Columbia, whose latest book I reviewed for Standpoint. “For Mazower,” I said, “the opposite of Communism is never ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom,’ but ‘capitalism’.”
Years ago, I was talking to David Horowitz — and he said, “No one realizes how influential Howard Zinn is. No one on our side” — i.e., the conservative side — “realizes how much damage he does. How many minds he warps.”
Of Zinn’s Red book, A People’s History of the United States, Bawer writes, “. . . it is the most influential history of America in our time, selling more than a hundred thousand copies every year. It is virtually impossible to visit an American university bookstore without running across high stacks of copies of Zinn’s book on the shelves of required reading for history courses.”
Bawer also writes of Edward Said — hugely, poisonously influential. You remember what Paul Johnson called him? (I have quoted Johnson many times on this subject.) A “malevolent liar and propagandist, who has been responsible for more harm than any other intellectual of his generation.”
The humanities today are awash in jargon, and Bawer gives us some definitions — of such words as problematize and reify. Here is what he says about interrogate: “Traditional readers read books; postmodernists interrogate texts.”
You know what’s more important than anything else in the whole wide world? Yes you do: race. Have a taste of Bawer’s reporting (and shudder):
. . . at a session called “Bodies in Question” at the 2010 conference of the National Women’s Studies Association, one participant worried aloud that Queer Studies “de-emphasizes the importance of race.” Another fretted that “white queers” don’t think enough about how their whiteness informs their notion of queerness. A third complained that “texts addressing issues of race in Queer Studies are marginalized.”
Etc., etc. I can hear the prayer of many parents: “May my children study engineering.”
Race, class, gender, race, class, gender — that’s all we hear (although it seems to me that class has been losing out to the other two — and to sexual orientation — in recent years). Bawer tells us about a professor who feels guilty about being white. She knows she is “empowered by my whiteness,” she says. But she feels that this sin — her race, and the power that goes with it — is canceled out by her gender and the fact that she comes from the “working class.”
I love what Bawer has to say, in part because he’s singing a song I have sung for a very long time:
If one felt obliged, for argument’s sake, to accept [this professor’s] view that human relations are purely a matter of group power and group oppression, one might at least try to persuade her that plenty of people are oppressed — or ignored, mocked, or looked down upon — for reasons other than race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. What, for example, about the short, old, fat, and unattractive? What about those with psychiatric disorders, chronic illnesses, physical handicaps, mental retardation? What about the bald and bespectacled?
The list can go on and on.
I can go on and on, too, about the wonderfulness of this book. I wish to quote the whole thing (as you can tell). I almost never say, “This is required reading,” or, “This ought to be required reading” — the world is full of books and articles that should be read. A person can consume no more than a spoonful. But, dammit, I wish people would read The Victims’ Revolution. I especially wish it of students and others in academia.
Bruce Bawer is blessed with clarity of mind — a clarity he has fought hard for, no doubt. I have a feeling he is underrated by the world of arts and letters. By the world of publishing. I can guarantee you he is valued, esteemed, by those who read him.
To order Jay Nordlinger’s book Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.