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Righteousness on the Cheap: the American Academy in 2017
by Christopher DeGroot
Miss Martha Carey Thomas' portrait by John Singer Sargent
“The mainspring is vanity, assisted by the love of garlic and bread and butter." —Thoreau
All across America, the academy is striving to rename itself; from the names of colleges to the statues that line campuses, language must be cleansed of racism and of white privilege, vices which are as deathless as vampires, and of a myriad other evils on an ever growing list of historical affronts to the present puritanical mind. What energy, what diligence, what commitment! Pay heed, Mr. Pichai, and you too, Mr. Zuckerberg; a great many scholarly canters, themselves formidably ambitious and goal-orientated, now threaten your competition to be Last-Man-in-Chief!
We can count on the academy’s righteousness like spam e-mail, because each is easy and insincere, save when it comes to pursuing lucre. No one is more class conscious than academics, given their intimate role in providing those badges of competence and, what is much more, compliance whereby one may pass through the professional gates, mostly in order to pursue that life of material acquisition and bodily pleasure that people call “success.” Historical revisionism is best understood from a psychological perspective, for from Hamward, Yawn and Dearthmount down to small, obscure state universities, academics learn early on that there is a severe order of rank, with the Itchy League embodying the very crest of wisdom and virtue. “Ape me, and ape me well,” it says to all would-be stars, who must publish or perish, lest vanity get no esteem. So it happens that academic monkeys, having caught the learned rash, endeavor to cast shadows on the Platonic wall, their dimness pleasingly bright in their own minds. But alas, such egotism gives rise to a profound guilt. Living essentially for themselves, they feel disturbed by (their awareness of) the condition of the less fortunate.
But not enough to do much to help them. Indeed, the guilt here is essentially selfish, like the sinner who, in spite of his lofty (that is, deceptive) words, is bothered not by sin itself but by the consequences thereof. And so, rather than trying to improve the lives of the less fortunate, the academic plays a pseudo-moral game with fellow frauds. For instance, he works up a pretend Marxism against great dead authors, like Jerome McGann’s stupid, tasteless and vulgar “critical investigation” of the British romantic poets. Or, like that avant-garde feminist Steve Evans, editor of “After Patriarchal Poetry,” he gushes against “the generic conventions and institutionalized gender biases of patriarchal poetry,” that long history of versified oppression. These days, in the humanities and social sciences especially, most academics have dull minds and weak characters. As such, they must churn out something of a low, conformist order in order to try to distinguish themselves. In general, it will derive from whatever they chanced to pick up from their own professors. Like Deconstruction, Queer Theory, and Orientalism, historical revisionism is just another academic fashion, and it contains no more real justice or principled opposition than the cowardly French post-structuralists during the Resistance.
“Educated” by the academy and consisting of the same corrupt stuff, the media attaches itself to this sensibility naturally, like a gnat sucking the blood of a mosquito. Thus, “Bryn Mawr confronts racist views of former leader,” announces an August 14 headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Notice the dramatic word confronts: it is meant to entice the resentful reader, and to propagate more of the same. In this way the media serves its main purpose: making money for advertisers, who keep the whole rotten machine running, primarily by appealing to base instincts. The word also betrays the underlying conceit of the academy and the generic minds of the journalists and editors who peddle this “news”: there is supposed to be something courageous, even heroic about this historical revisionism, even though the stakes are not serious—indeed there are no stakes, in academia—and the real motive is resentment, not a benevolent desire for “social change.”
Stirred by the fallout from the deadly Charlottesville protest, Bryn Mawr College this week took steps to distance itself from M. Carey Thomas, a leading suffragist and perhaps the school’s most influential president, citing her racist and anti-Semitic views.
The college will no longer refer in printed materials or on its website to its main gathering space as Thomas Great Hall or the building that houses it as Thomas Library, president Kim Cassidy said in a letter to the campus community.
“While Thomas had a profound impact on opportunities for women in higher education, on the academic development and identity of Bryn Mawr, and on the physical plan of the campus, she also openly and vigorously advanced racism and anti-Semitism as part of her vision of the college,” Cassidy said.
The issue has been brewing for a couple of years and over the last few months, a campus committee of faculty, students, staff, trustees, and alumnae has been debating how to handle the legacy of Thomas, who led the college from 1894 to 1922.
But Cassidy said that given the violent uproar over white supremacy demonstrators in Charlottesville this month, mounting concerns about racism, and “an especially raw moment for members of many different marginalized groups whose rights and dignities are being attacked so openly and so viciously,” she thought it was prudent to issue a moratorium on the use of Thomas’ name for 2017-18 while the committee completes its work.
“We will make a concerted effort to remove as many references to the name as is possible for this year,” she said.
The actual function of such “concerted effort” is to enable people to feel righteous without actually doing anything to help the suffering poor. It is a fraud's response to class guilt. And this farce abounds in academia because nowhere else are people so anxious to rise in status and to maintain class division and privilege. Again, there are no stakes, on comfortable college campuses, for condemning the dead. People condemn the past because it is easy, while it is hard to change the present, namely, one’s self. The brunt of the moral corruption which this practice inspires in the young is felt by the poor, whom academics pretend to care about for careerism's sake. Students learn that being a good person consists of pointing fingers at people who, because they no longer exist, are conveniently unable to defend themselves. Such an activity is rather more agreeable than self-examination that involves confronting your own flaws. Thus historical revisionism serves to excuse the elite from any obligation they might feel to assist the lowly. And this, indeed, is the morality of the academic Left generally. Like denouncing statues of dead historical figures, projecting discrimination into contexts in the face of mere disparity is also preferable to sacrificing your own well-being and privilege for people who don’t have it as good as you. For it is no easy thing to significantly better the lot of your fellow man—that is precisely why few people really want to do it. It is easy to make a show of virtue for status’ sake. Today it just as Blake put it in his poem Milton (1804):
He smiles with condescension; he talks of Benevolence and Virtue,
And those who act with Benevolence and Virtue they murder time on time.
The pioneering feminist M. Carey Thomas, for all her moral failings, assuredly did more for other people than Bryn Mawr’s indignant students and faculty who, by condemning the life of a dead person, merely show how little serious is their regard for those “members of [the] many different [allegedly] marginalized groups whose rights and dignities are [allegedly] being attacked so openly and so viciously.” The groups, we are told, are not poor but “marginalized.” The choice is revealing; the thinking here derives from mere intellectual envy and has nothing to do with class, for the language of marginalization is rooted in the university canon wars and is a matter of sheer intellectual pride, not a genuine concern for human suffering. Martin Luther King Jr eschewed identity politics; because he cared about the suffering poor, his chief concern was class. In the academy, false moralists gripe about “marginalized groups,” asserting that Felicia Hemans should be as esteemed as William Wordsworth; Chinua Achebe, as Joseph Conrad, as if all this mattered to any hungry man, woman or child. How much easier, all this intellectual envy and consequence-free judgment of the dead, and how much more pleasing to the intellectual’s ego, than getting up early to feed the homeless on a cold winter morning, like that homely, unheralded believer whom the academy is wont to deem “unprogressive,” indeed “deplorable” in the manner of Hilary Clinton, that hypocrite par excellence and representative product of rotten academia, where no person of honor can work without feeling a visceral disgust.
“We all rail against class-distinctions,” said George Orwell in the Road to Wigan Pier,
but very few people seriously want to abolish them. Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed…
So long as it is merely a question of ameliorating the worker's lot, every decent person is agreed….
But unfortunately you get no further by merely wishing class-distinctions away. More exactly, it is necessary to wish them away, but your wish has no efficacy unless you grasp what it involves. The fact that has got to be faced is that to abolish class-distinctions means abolishing a part of yourself….I have got to alter myself so completely that at the end I should hardly be recognizable as the same person. What is involved is not merely the amelioration of working-class conditions, nor an avoidance of the more stupid forms of snobbery, but a complete abandonment of the upper-class and middle-class attitude to life. And whether I say Yes or No probably depends upon the extent to which I grasp what is demanded of me.
It is often remarked that Leftism has a religious character. And indeed the passion it evinces, an unsurprising response to the deep perversity in which its adherents live, does resemble a desire for revolutionary change. But such change— “abolishing a part of yourself,” so committing to aiding the wretched of the earth that “at the end...[you] should hardly be recognizable as the same person”—is enormously difficult: in short, it is religion proper, today as ever, and it is such a demand that few people are willing to undertake in earnest and with consistency. Hence the actual function of historical revisionism. It is righteousness on the cheap. It is a very strange reasoning which holds that the common good is served by making our representations of the past more diverse. It ought to be a scandal that amid all this talk about diversity, Leftists are seen to do so little for the poor. And yet such failure of obligation is precisely why we encounter the word diversity all the time, rather than the word poverty. The Leftist intellectual plays word games in order to avoid facing the truth about himself. The more he cants, the greater is his inner fraudulence. The other purpose of the diversity idol is to allow unhappy people to discharge their malaise, which has no actual relation to its object, whether the latter be a statue of Robert E. Lee or a school named after Woodrow Wilson, for on the whole, what really drives the Left is its lack of satisfying personal relationships and intrinsically meaningful work.
There is a wonderfully edifying scene in James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. A well-born lady having expressed vexation at the class division which she believes is responsible for London’s many suffering poor, the great man urges her to invite her servant to join them at table: a social justice she seems rather unwilling to effect. “This is the inevitable fate of the sentimentalist,” Orwell saw. “All his opinions change into their opposites at the first brush of reality.” Like the sentimental lady, the academic uses certain noble-sounding notions—social justice, diversity, equality, and all the sanctified rest—to create a rosy image of himself, in order that others may perceive it: an image that, unbeknownst to him, given the depth of his self-delusion, is constantly undermined by his actions. “The left-wing opinions of the average 'intellectual' are mainly spurious,” Orwell believed, and the American academy is the greatest proof to date.
Christopher DeGroot is a writer from the City of Brotherly Love.