What ensues, to borrow a term from NR’s Jay Nordlinger, is a “clash of liberal pieties.” One panelist mentions the hijab — not as a symbol of male oppression, but “as an innocuous form of attire the sight of which causes many Western women . . . to look down upon and (in effect) oppress the women who wear it.” Then a debate breaks out about a previous panel, at which some Muslim women were supposedly “silenced” for “hog[ging] the mike” and trying to steer conversation away from male oppression (they preferred to talk about “water supplies and shelter”). In women’s studies today, academics can’t quite bring themselves to address sexism when it’s practiced by anyone who isn’t white.
And perhaps more important, today’s women’s-studies departments are open about the fact that their purpose is political proselytizing as much as teaching or discussion. Some of the field’s leading texts refer to it as “the academic wing of feminism” and note its style of “politicized learning.” In assignments, students are directed to criticize patriarchy without having been presented a range of views about it. By the end of the chapter, Bawer has given up hope for the discipline — there are glimmers of original thought here and there, but intersectionality and indoctrination appear to be the way forward.
The story of black studies is a little different. The discipline grew out of the civil-rights movement, and the first departments were established through a combination of student protests and the manipulation of white administrators’ racial guilt. Some of the best original material in The Victims’ Revolution comes courtesy of Shelby Steele, a right-leaning commentator who helped found black studies as a young radical. He explains to Bawer how easy it was to pressure university administrators to create departments — even though he and his fellow activists had little to no vision of what black studies was or should be.
As Bawer describes it, today’s black studies offers very little of value — it is led by Henry Louis Gates Jr., who writes dense academic prose that says almost nothing, and Cornel West, a man who considers himself a prophet but, in Bawer’s view, has produced no notable scholarly work. And one of the most popular textbooks is Ron Karenga’s Introduction to Black Studies, which advances the almost certainly false thesis that African Americans are descended from the ancient Egyptians (whose already impressive accomplishments Karenga inflates).
Bawer similarly tracks the development of queer and Chicano (or Chicano/a, or Chican@) studies. His discussion of the former is especially enlightening — Bawer himself has been active in promoting gay rights, but he finds little to relate to in the field that was called “gay studies” before its “slide into irresponsibility, irrelevance, and incoherence.” He attacks the late French philosopher Michel Foucault, one of the leading figures in queer studies, at length — highlighting Foucault’s bizarre theory that social norms are a more dangerous form of power than is totalitarian government, as well as his belief that anonymous sex and sadomasochism are “a philosophical and moral response to institutional power” (Bawer’s words). And queer studies, like women’s studies, has fallen prey to “intersectionality”; the discipline is wary of white-male homosexuals, because they’re not oppressed enough.
The end result of all this is that students are taught to have a skewed view of the world, denied access to non-leftist points of view, and given degrees that mean little outside of academia. Bawer is rightfully appalled by what he finds at conferences and on university discussion boards: Students are either spewing jargon without analyzing the underlying issues, or committing basic errors of logic and grammar without being corrected by their instructors. A student who dares to dissent is often shamed into conformity.
In The Victims’ Revolution we have, at last, a serious and thorough dissection of identity studies. Anyone with a stake in these fields — from prospective students to their parents to university administrators to professors — should read it.