Skip to Content


Beware the ferret-faced heresy hunters

15 May 2012

10:51 AM

15 May 2012

10:51 AM

I fell in with bad company while I was on a story in Oslo last week:
American conservative journalists. I am glad to say confirmed the public’s stereotype of reporters by enjoying their drink. (They make it their first task after landing in a new city to find
the best bar, an example that should inspire us all.) But they bore no resemblance to the European stereotype of the ignorant, right-wing yank. They were cosmopolitans who were at ease in Europe.
They were well read. Although they would hate the label, they were also crusading journalists, who had made the cause of the dissident opposition to Putin and Lukashenko their own. They had no time
for social conservatives, who wanted to police private morals — but, I told them, they had ended up in the same political camp with know-nothings who thought that dinosaurs roamed the Garden
of Eden and conspiracy theorists who thought that Barack Obama was a secret member of the Mau-Mau.

How could they stand to spend a minute in such company?
The viciousness of the American left drove intelligent men and women rightwards, they replied. They arrived at American campuses with standard left-wing beliefs. The illiberalism of allegedly
liberal academics so shocked them, they left as conservatives.

When I looked doubtful, they pointed me in the direction of the Naomi Schaefer Riley affair, which is dividing American pundits on predictably partisan lines.

Riley, an experienced education correspondent, satirised
a piece her employers at The Chronicle of Higher Education had published on the supposed rising stars of black studies departments of US colleges. Far from revealing the discipline’s academic
rigour, she said, the brief descriptions of the graduates’ dissertations revealed them as purveyors of ‘left-wing victimization claptrap’.
It was not a great piece. Just a standard conservative polemic. Some of her targets may have been undeserving. But one was juicier than she knew:

‘Topping the list in terms of sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery is La TaSha B. Levy. According to the Chronicle, “Ms. Levy is interested in examining the long
tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan. Ms. Levy’s dissertation argues that conservatives like
Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.’” The
assault on civil rights? Because they don’t favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights? Because they believe there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot
be blamed on white people they are assaulting civil rights?’

Riley missed the best charge against such writing: that it fails to understand the paradox of left wing campaigns for equality. The greater the success the left has helping minorities,
the less reason minorities have for voting left. When British conservatives passed discriminatory legislation, for example, against gays and lesbians, gays and lesbians were more likely to vote
Labour or Liberal Democrat. Once the left had won the battle to allow the law to treat homosexuals like everyone else, they could vote like everyone else — and vote for Conservative
politicians, who no longer threatened them, if that was where their interests lay. An unrecognised objective of the US Civil Rights Movement was to create a country where conservatively minded blacks
could vote Republican.
Such quibbles did not bother Riley’s critics. They insisted that she was a racist. At first the editor of the Chronicle behaved with complete propriety. She invited outraged readers ‘to
debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit’. Freedom of speech for a writer does not mean freedom from robust criticism, and the affronted academics set about Riley
with vigour and venom. They described her post as ‘a lazy and vitriolic hit piece . . . that
summarily dismisses our academic work while debasing us,’ and went on to complain: ‘Riley displays breathtaking arrogance and gutless anti-intellectualism. . . . One can only assume that
in a bid to not be ‘out-niggered’ by her right-wing cohort, Riley found some black women graduate students to beat up on. . . . shame on The Chronicle of Higher Education.’

Riley’s critics were not content with refuting her, mocking her or even libelling her. They wanted her fired. An extraordinary 6500 people, mainly from academia, signed a petition demanding
the editor, Liz McMillen, sack Riley. Ms McMillen’s response was so cowardly it will take her several lifetimes to live down the disgrace. ‘We’ve heard you,’ she told the critics,
then announced that she would indeed dispense with Ms Riley’s services.
Now suppose that the US government said that universities should fire academics who excused the Iranian regime. Or right-wing Christians demanded that the Chronicle fire a writer who insulted
teachers at theological colleges. Or universities had acted on Riley’s argument that black studies departments were a waste of space and closed them. Cries of ‘McCarthyism’ would
rend the air. Earnest professors would remind us that academic tenure was an essential protection of free inquiry .
McMillen and her readers look like hypocrites who demand a freedom of speech for themselves they deny to others. They have many courtier intellectuals to hand to philosophise their double
standards. The worst is Stanley Fish, a law professor and writer for the New York Times, who manages to be sinister and clownish simultaneously. He tells American liberals that they are entitled to
abandon liberalism. They must deny conservatives free speech and enforce censorship, he says. And rather than being embarrassed by their behaviour, they should stand tall as righteous and
unapologetic hypocrites.

His argument is easy to summarise because there is so little to it. Fish and those like him believe that they are wholly in the right and therefore debate cannot change their minds or modify their
thoughts. They believe that their opponents are in a similarly closed mental universe, so debating them is doubly pointless. (If this were true, incidentally, no one’s opinions would ever
change). Those who disagree with them are not merely opponents, even stupid, prejudiced or corrupt opponents, but enemies, whose liberties must be suspended for the duration of the culture wars.

In all likelihood, Naomi Schaefer Riley is not a racist. She defended her squib by
citing African-American scholars who had been saying what she had said about black studies departments for 30 years. No matter. She was now an enemy combatant, and normal standards no longer

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Fish defended hypocrisy by explaining how it was
defensible for liberals to condemn Rush Limbaugh for making sexist remarks while excusing Bill Maher for making equally sexist remarks. Maher was a good guy ‘on the side of truth and
justice’ while, ‘Limbaugh is the bad guy; he is on the side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy. Why should he get an even break?’

As well as revealing the weakness of many leftish men’s opposition to misogyny — a subject researchers at women’s studies departments should consider looking at one day —
Fish invited the accusation that his work revealed a dictatorial mind. He was happy to plead guilty as charged:

‘I know the objections to what I have said here. It amounts to an apology for identity politics. It elevates tribal obligations over the universal obligations we owe to each other as
citizens. It licenses differential and discriminatory treatment on the basis of contested points of view. It substitutes for the rule “don’t do it to them if you don’t want it
done to you” the rule “be sure to do it to them first and more effectively.” It implies finally that might makes right. I can live with that.’

Conservative Americans enjoy nothing more than condemning political correctness. But they can be just as a censorious. George W. Bush’s former aide David Frum proved he was no wet
liberal when he wrote the president’s ‘Axis of Evil’ speech. When he criticised the Tea Party, however, the supposedly reputable think tank, the American Enterprise Institute,
forced him out for challenging rather than comforting its supporters.

Witch-finders can be found everywhere on the political spectrum, although I admit that at present the infestation is worse on the left than the right. If you are ever tempted to indulge them, and
cannot grasp the principled arguments for free debate, remember that no one drives potential adherents away from your cause so efficiently as the ferret-faced heresy hunter.

Show comments