Submitted by Alex Golub on April 17, 2006 - 4:00am
As a Jewish professor, I know that it is my lot in life to deal with stereotypes of Jewish academics. As a Jewish professor from California, dealing with these stereotypes is even more difficult because I lack recourse to the solution favored by many colleagues: acting as if the complex negotiation of my identity can be accomplished simply by assuming that "Jewish" means "from New York" and leaving it at that. As a Jewish professor from California who teaches in Hawaii, navigating my identity as a practicing Reform Jew, both in the classroom and out, has taken many surprising twists and turns.
Oxford University Press's Judaism: A Very Short Introduction notes astutely that Jews, like tomatoes, are neither "particularly complicated or obscure when left to themselves, but they don't neatly fit into the handy categories such as fruit or vegetable or nation and religion which are so useful for pigeonholing other foods and people." Growing up in northern California, I went to a high school where the blanket term "Asian" was scrupulously decomposed into a wide variety of ethnicities, which included not just Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, but Hmong, Miao, Mien, Lao, Hongkie, Taiwanese, and so forth. When I got lunch at Vang's convenience store, my Thai friend grumbled about "those hill people." But for him, as for me, there was only one kind of white person: the white kind.
It was not until I moved to graduate school in Chicago that I realized that there were different kinds of white people. Growing up in Reagan's America, "Marxism" to me meant a critique of the soullessness of suburban life. Exploitation was not about class -- it was about Mexican-Anglo relations. While I understood that my religion made me different from most people, it didn't seem to make me any more distinctive than the guy in my class whose family had a time-share in Tahoe: I missed a few days of class for high holy days, he missed them for the time share. But living on the south side of Chicago, class became an inescapable fact of life, and "color" meant "black" and "white."
That I could understand. But I was particularly puzzled by religion as a source of social differentiation in America. I traveled to Minnesota and visited small towns, which featured intersections with churches on every corner. Why did the Missouri Synod Lutherans need one church and the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans need another? And how was all this related to the graduate student parties where bizarre passes would occasionally be made at me by women whose complex psychological relationship with novels like Portnoy's Complaint and Ravelstein had driven them out of their dairy-rich farming communities and into the arms of a cosmopolitan intellectualism which they expected me to embody?
My dissertation committee consisted of three Jewish structuralists and a Protestant interested in performativity. The Protestant member of my committee claimed that reading Kierkegaard's analysis of the sacrifice of Isaac through a Derridean lens could help explain nationalism in Indonesia, but this was the closest I actually got to Judaism as a religious phenomenon. Actually that is not true. At one point as I was driving in the car with one member of my committee, she pointed out a kosher butcher shop and told me that that was where another member of my committee went "for really good meat." But that was it -- my committee was alarmed when I suggested that Judaism was not actually synonymous with being an atheist intellectual, or even who knew where to get a pound of lean pastrami.
I originally felt my move to Hawaii would be a sort of homecoming -- a return to the multicultural environment of my childhood and an end to the terrible, terrible cold I had suffered through in the Midwest. In fact I was in for a bit of a shock. Hawaii has a unique local culture derived from the state's legacy of plantation colonialism and its overthrow at the hands of a strong labor movement. As a result Hawaii owes much to the Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese workers who moved here to cut cane. And of course there is the rich tradition of native Hawaiian culture, which has experienced a renaissance here in the past 30 years. Since the United States has long been the inheritor of Spanish colonialism in the Pacific, our islands are called home by increasing numbers of Chammoro and Filipinos. The growing number of migrants from Samoa and Tonga allows Hawaii to challenge Auckland as the unofficial capital of Polynesia. And there is no doubt that Honolulu -- the forward point for the projection of U.S. political and military power into the Pacific -- has long been a center for Micronesian migration.
Further, Hawaii has one of the highest rates of intermarriage in the country, and the place is remarkably cosmopolitan given its small size and distance from major centers. The result of all this is that my students are more likely to visit Saipan than Schenectady, and know more about Pago Pago than Paris. It soon became apparent that the welcome return to my natal relation to my Jewish identity was not to be had -- and for reasons more enduring than the fact that the Web site for my new shul in Honolulu was "shaloha.com."
A great deal of my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course involves getting students to rethink ideas of race and ethnicity in light of the anthropological concept of culture. However, I feel very uncomfortable asking my students to objectify themselves in class by asking them "as an Asian, how do you feel about this?" or lecturing my African-American students about supposedly innate black athletic ability. On the mainland I solved this problem by objectifying myself and examining, for instance, stereotypes about Jews. In fact I typically use the tomato imagery from Oxford's Very Short Introduction to Judaism. "So," I said in my first class in the islands, dry erase marker in hand and ready to make a discussion-spurring list, "what are some stereotypes you have of Jewish people?"
"Please," I say generously, "This classroom is a safe place where people can discuss controversial topics civilly, so don't feel you need to spare my feelings. So: what are some stereotypes of Jews?"
Silence. As a new professor I had read countless books and articles exhorting me not to get freaked out if it took a while for someone to say something. But this time I get nothing. Nada.
"How about the idea that Jews are good with money?" I finally offer.
"You mean like they're pake?" asked one confused woman, using a Hawaiian term originally meant to describe Chinese people, but which in local slang simply means tight-fisted.
In this and other classes I quickly came to realize that when it comes to Jews the Hawaiian response to the question of "is a tomato a vegetable or a fruit" is to ask "what's a tomato?" In California, my identity as a Jew wasn't particularly relevant. In Honolulu, I am pretty much off the table insofar as the ethnic imagination of my students goes. All white people were haole -- a Hawaiian word with a slightly derogatory connotations (one of my students wears a T-shirt to class that reads "Haole you flew here I grew here".)
The problem was not just that my students didn't know that I was a tomato, they're often a little unclear on the idea that people must be sorted into fruits and vegetables. To put it another way: it is difficult to expose the culturally-contingent nature of your student's essentialist folk theories of identity when they have names like Motoko Kapualani da Silva or Brian Ka'imikaua Li. This latter student claimed to be "Japanese, Filipino, and Hawaiian." I pointed out to him that his last name was Chinese. He paused and thought about it for a second and then remembered that yes, his family was also Chinese but he had never really thought of "Li" as a Chinese name. By speaking frankly about my own identity with my students I learned that they did not operate with the same concepts of race and ethnicity that my students on the mainland did, and this insight allowed me to teach anthropology in a way that was accessible to them.
Now when I teach my intro class I engage my student's expectations about ethnic difference by approaching some of the aporias of identity in Hawaii. How does the selective retention of taboos and purity laws by orthodox Jews provide a model of how (or how not!) to creatively innovate one's tradition? Why do we speak of Hawaii as a multicultural paradise when there is so much racial tension simmering under the surface? Is the distinction of "local" and "haole" one of race? Of class? What does it mean to talk about "ancient Hawaiian tradition" with a professor whose people lived in diaspora for a millennium before the first Hawaiians arrived in the islands? Why are haole tourists noisy, rude, and overbearing compared to locals? How can we use the concept of culture to render this comportment intelligible?
In sum, living in Hawaii has forced me to rethink not just my own Jewish heritage, but the issue of heritage in general. As an anthropologist I find the challenge of working through these multiple layers of identity and (as we say in the business) “group affiliation” to be both professionally and personally rewarding. And most important of all, it provides my students a chance to grow intellectually by thinking about identity and belonging in ways they may not have before. In the next few semesters I plan to put together a class entitled "Kohen and Kahuna," based on an unpublished manuscript by a Rabbi and sociologist who studied at the University of Hawaii in the 1940s. We will not discuss Woody Allen films or where to get a pound of lean pastrami. We will discuss the comparative study of taboo, social complexity in Polynesia and the ancient Middle East, and anxiety about not being able to chant properly in your heritage language. Shaloha, everyone!
Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.
The University of Colorado committee investigating Ward Churchill has found him guilty, guilty, guilty. And on some level, they’re right: Churchill is guilty of occasionally shoddy scholarship and the dubious practice of ghostwriting, and perhaps even more. But we should be alarmed by the investigative committee’s report, and not merely because the committee exists only because of a concerted effort to fire Churchill for his obnoxious and idiotic comments about 9/11 victims.
By stretching the meaning of "research misconduct" far beyond its true definition, and by supporting the suspension and even dismissal of a tenured professor for his use of footnotes, the Colorado committee is opening the door to a vast new right-wing witch hunt on college campuses that conservatives could easily exploit across the country.
If you don’t like a professor’s politics, simply file a complaint of "research misconduct." According to the Colorado committee, if you can find a factual error made by the professor with a footnote that fails to prove the contention, that scholar is guilty of "research misconduct" and can be suspended or fired.
The far right is already pursuing leftist academics for expressing their views in the classroom. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni just issued a report on “How Many Ward Churchills?,” proclaiming that "professors are using their classrooms to push political agendas." ACTA’s alleged proof that Ward Churchills are “common” on college campuses is a survey of course catalogs and syllabi, objecting to classes that mention social justice, sex, or race. (The ACTA report denounces a University of Colorado class on “Animals and Society” because it “[e]xplores the moral status of animals.”)
ACTA threatens that academic freedom will be revoked from colleges unless they start censoring their professors and ban such courses. Colleges “must also recognize that if they do not take swift and decisive action, they risk losing the independence and the privilege they have traditionally enjoyed.” According to ACTA, “students, parents, trustees, administrators, and taxpayers have a right to be concerned. They also have the right to raise questions, demand answers, and compel action.”
Compelling action is also the goal of David Horowitz and his Academic Bill of Rights legislation. In March, Horowitz testified before the Kansas legislature. He denounced women’s studies programs as a violation of academic freedom and standards. According to Horowitz, because the University of Kansas Women’s Studies program express a goal of educating students about “how and why gender inequality developed and is maintained in the United States and in our global society,” it should be banned. Since Horowitz thinks there may not be any gender inequality in the world, women’s studies programs “can in no way be justified as taxpayer-supported programs.”
Considering how effortlessly Horowitz misreads the meaning of academic freedom under the AAUP standards, one can only imagine how effectively he could distort "research misconduct" to pursue his crusade against left-wing professors like those in his book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. If Horowitz fails to get professors fired for talking about politics in their classes, he could try to have them fired for expressing controversial views in their research.
That's the harrowing possibility raised by the irresponsible claims of the Colorado committee. They claim to be following the University of Colorado’s statement on Misconduct in Research and Authorship, which defines research misconduct as “fabrication, falsification, plagiarism and other forms of misappropriation of ideas, or additional practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted in the research community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research."
Because Colorado’s policy explicitly exempts "honest error," the Colorado committee turned into a kind of character police. Noting their dislike for Churchill’s "attitude," the committee members seem to have concluded without the slightest evidence that Churchill intentionally deceived readers with his footnotes.
For example, the Colorado committee concluded, “Professor Churchill repeatedly and deliberately cited the General Allotment Act of 1887 and once cited Janet McDowell’s book for the details of historical and legal propositions that he advances. Because both sources in fact contradict his claims, this is a form of falsification of evidence.” This logic is repeated in four out of the seven charges against Churchill. The Colorado committee’s basis for the claim of fabrication depends upon a fundamentally narrow-minded view of what a footnote should be.
However, footnotes serve many purposes. A footnote is not always definitive proof of the sentence being noted. It is common practice for footnotes to be used in order to refer readers to general works related to the period being discussed (as Churchill does), and even to cite works which provide a different or contradictory view of the era.
In my forthcoming book, Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies, I include a quote by former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer admonishing Americans to “watch what they say.” I have a footnote listing a news report about the statement. But I also include in the footnote a reference to a letter to The New York Times by Fleischer explaining why he is being misinterpreted. I do not comment on this claim, because every word in my footnotes counts against the word limit for the book, and I don’t want to waste precious space scrutinizing some political hack’s line of bullshit. But I thought readers might want to look at a different view.
According to the Colorado committee, I have committed "research misconduct." My footnote includes a source contradicting my interpretation of the comment. On the other hand, if I simply omitted the reference to Fleischer’s letter, and deprived readers of a chance to find a view disagreeing with my perspective, I would be a perfectly fine scholar in the committee’s eyes.
There is no reputable source for the Colorado committee’s claim that footnotes cannot include sources who disagree with the author. In order to evaluate the charge of research misconduct, the Colorado committee proclaimed that it would use the American Historical Association “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct” as “a general point of reference.” However, the AHA statement is not intended to be a basis for punishing professors. Indeed, if anything the AHA justifies Churchill’s approach by urging scholars to be “explicit, thorough, and generous in acknowledging one’s intellectual debts.” Nor does the AHA statement include anything about the proper use of footnotes which would justify a charge of falsification.
The Colorado committee provides a footnote quoting the AHA statement that “historians pride themselves on the accuracy with which they use and document sources. The sloppier their apparatus, the harder it is for other historians to trust their work.” But there a vast difference between saying that lousy footnotes will affect your credibility and claiming that lousy footnotes can justify revocation of tenure.
In other words, the Colorado committee “proved” that Churchill was guilty of research misconduct for providing footnotes that did not support his claims by citing a footnote which did not support its claims. It seems strange that a committee which provides a thorough and fascinating account of the historical minutiae surrounding an 1837 smallpox epidemic would somehow fail to do any research on the meaning of fabrication and research misconduct. The Colorado committee’s shoddy work on the meaning of fabrication and misconduct stands in sharp contrast to its extensive research of the charges against Churchill.
The problem is that when a policy largely developed to address scientific misconduct is applied to the humanities, it must be properly interpreted. For example, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dismissed a professor last year for research misconduct, it was because he literally fabricated data. No one has ever accused Churchill of fabricating data (such as making up historical sources). He is accused of making broad claims, without adequate evidence, which are probably wrong. That is lousy historical research, but it’s not research misconduct by any stretch of the imagination.
There is some evidence to find Churchill guilty on other charges of ghostwriting and plagiarism. But using footnotes as an excuse to fire Churchill makes the entire committee’s findings look like political expediency to remove an embarrassment to the University of Colorado. By turning every case of bad research into research misconduct, the Colorado committee threatens to expose the entire academic system to a political witch hunt. In an era when the right-wing is already targeting college professors for their extramural statements and political comments in class, this radical revision of research standards could mark the next step in the war on academic freedom.
Ward Churchill should be fired for academic misconduct -- that’s the decision made by the interim chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, after receiving a report from a faculty committee concluding that Churchill is guilty of falsification, fabrication and plagiarism. That report shows that, even under difficult political conditions, it’s possible to do a good job dealing with charges of research misconduct. The Colorado report on Churchill provides a striking contrast to the flawed 2002 Emory University report on Michael Bellesiles, the historian of gun culture in America, who was found guilty of “falsification” in one table. The contrast says a lot about the ways universities deal with outside pressure demanding that particular professors be fired.
Churchill is the Native American activist and professor of ethnic studies at Colorado who famously declared that some of the people killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11 were “little Eichmanns.” In the furor that followed, the governor of Colorado demanded that the university fire Churchill; the president of the university defended his right to free speech, but then -- facing a series of controversies -- resigned. Churchill’s critics then raised charges that his writings were full of fabrications and plagiarism, and the university appointed a committee of faculty members to evaluate seven charges of specific instances of research misconduct. Their 124-page report, released on May 16, concluded that Churchill’s misconduct was serious and was not limited to a few isolated cases, but was part of a pattern. The panel divided on an appropriate penalty: one recommended revoking his tenure and dismissing him, two recommended suspension without pay for five years, while two others recommended that he be suspended without pay for two years.
One key instance of “falsification and fabrication” was Churchill’s writing about the Mandan, an Indian tribe living in what is now North Dakota, who were decimated by a smallpox epidemic in 1837. The Mandan, Churchill argues, provide one example of how American Indians were the victims of genocide. In an essay titled “An American Holocaust?," he wrote that the U.S. Army infected the Mandan with smallpox by giving them contaminated blankets in a deliberate effort to “eliminate” them. Churchill footnotes several sources as providing evidence for this claim, including UCLA anthropologist Russell Thornton’s book American Indian Holocaust and Survival. But Thornton’s book says the opposite: the Army did not intentionally give infected blankets to the Mandan. None of Churchill’s other sources provide support for his claim. Nevertheless Churchill repeated his argument in six publications over a period of ten years, during which his claims about official U.S. policy toward the Mandan “generally became more extreme.” He refused to admit to the committee that his claims were not supported by the evidence he cited. Therefore, the committee concluded, Churchill was guilty of “a pattern of deliberate academic misconduct involving falsification [and] fabrication.” The panel members came to similar conclusions regarding five other charges.
The five-member Colorado committee worked under a cloud: The only reason they were asked to look at his academic writing was that powerful political voices outside the university wanted Churchill fired for his statement about 9/11. After the university refused to fire him for statements protected by the First Amendment, his critics raised charges of research misconduct, hoping to achieve their original goal. What are the responsibilities of an investigating committee in such a highly-charged political situation?
In this respect the Ward Churchill case has some striking similarities to the case Michael Bellesiles, who was an Emory University historian when he wrote Arming America, a book that won considerable scholarly praise when it first appeared -- and that aroused a storm of outrage because of its argument that our current gun culture was not created by the Founding Fathers. Pro-gun activists demanded that Emory fire Bellesiles, raising charges of research misconduct. Historians too sharply criticized some of his research. Emory responded by appointing a committee that found “evidence of falsification;" Bellesiles then resigned his tenured position.
Although the cases have some striking similarities, starting with the political pressures that gave rise to the investigations and concluding with findings of “falsification,” the differences are significant and revealing. The Emory committee concluded that Bellesiles’ research into probate records was “unprofessional and misleading” as well as “superficial and thesis-driven,” and that his earlier explanations of errors “raise doubts about his veracity." But the panel found “evidence of falsification” only on one page: Table 1, “Percentage of probate inventories listing firearms.” They did not find that he had “fabricated data.” The “falsification” occurred when Bellesiles omitted two years from the table, which covered almost a century -- 1765 to 1859. The two years, 1774 and 1775, would have shown more guns, evidence against his thesis that Americans had few guns before the Civil War.
But the Emory committee failed to consider how significant this omission was for the book as a whole. In fact the probate research criticized by the committee was referred to in only a handful of paragraphs in Bellesiles’s 400 page book, and he cited the problematic Table 1 only a couple of times. If Bellesiles had omitted all of the probate data that the committee (and others) criticized, the book’s argument would still have been supported by a wide variety of other relevant evidence that the committee did not find to be fraudulent.
The Colorado committee, in contrast, made it a point to go beyond the narrow charges they were asked to adjudicate. They acknowledged that the misconduct they found concerned “no more than a few paragraphs” in an “extensive body of academic work.” They explicitly raised the question of “why so much weight is being assigned to these particular pieces.” They went on to evaluate the place of the misconduct they found in Churchill’s “broader interpretive stance,” and presented evidence of “patterns of academic misconduct” that were intentional and widespread.
The two committees also took dramatically different approaches to the all-important question of sanctions. At Emory the committee members never said what they considered an appropriate penalty for omitting 1774 and 1775 from his Table 1. They did not indicate whether any action by Emory was justified -- or whether the harsh criticism Bellesiles received from within the profession was penalty enough.
The Colorado committee members, in contrast, devoted four single-spaced pages to “The Question of Sanctions.” They insisted that the university “resist outside interference and pressures” when a final decision on Churchill was made. Those favoring the smallest penalty, suspension without pay for two years, declared they were “troubled by the circumstances under which these allegations have been made,” and concerned that dismissal “would have an adverse effect on the ability of other scholars to conduct their research with due freedom.” These important issues needed to be raised, and they were.
Finally, the Colorado committee explicitly discussed the political context of their work, while the Emory committee failed to do so. The Colorado report opened with a section titled simply “Context.” It said “The committee is troubled by the origins of, and skeptical concerning the motives for, the current investigation.” The key, they said, was that their investigation “was only commenced after, and perhaps in some response to, the public attack on Professor Churchill for his controversial publications.” But, they said, because the claims of academic misconduct were serious, they needed to be investigated fully and fairly.
The basic problem with the Emory report was that it accepted the terms of debate set by others, and thereby abdicated responsibility to work independently and to consider the significance of the findings. Their inquiry should have been as sweeping as the stakes were high; instead they limited their examination to a few pages in a great big book. Colorado shows how to avoid the kind of tunnel vision that marred the Emory report. The report on Ward Churchill demonstrates that charges of research misconduct that arise in a heated political environment can be addressed with intelligence and fairness.
Last week, a scholarly group known as the Future of Minority Studies held a colloquium at Stanford University, drawing something in the neighborhood of a hundred participants. And the term "neighborhood" seems very fitting. The spirit of the gathering was unusual, even though the schedule and format were, in many ways, very typical of academic conferences. (Audio of my interviews with Satya P. Mohanty and Paula Moya, organizers of the conference, is available here.)
There was a keynote address, and a series of panels during which papers were read. Everybody wore nametags, of course, establishing one's right to be there as a member of some (more or less prominent) institution. Yet the event never had that stressful, desperate quality you come to expect at academic get-togethers. The cultural politics of prestige seemed out of commission.
That famous modality of ego-maintenance known as "the nametag glance" did not have the furtive and worried edge it normally does. The discussions following the papers and in the aisles afterward seemed remarkably open and devoid of theoretical one-upmanshup. In the course of two whole days, I never saw anybody grovel.
The gathering was drawn from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, and also included people with varying degrees of ability or disability, and a balanced array of gender identities and sexual orientations. Social diversity was only part of it. Participants also hailed from regions of the humanities and social sciences that otherwise tend not to stay in touch: literary critics, historians, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, and probably a few more fields besides.
The impressive thing is not just that communication proved possible (friendly, even) but the prevailing intellectual attitude: a belief that collaboration is possible across the usual barriers, disciplinary and otherwise. It is easy enough to affirm this in principle. Only when you see it in being translated into demeanor and face-to-face conversation does it seem meaningful.
There is a theory behind the Future of Minority Studies project –- one with a name, in fact, though not a very catchy one. It is called "postpositivist realism." Henceforth let it be abbreviated as PPR, given the brevity of life. Some discussion of PPR has taken place in New Literary History and Diacritics -- journals prominent in literary studies. But PPR is not a dominant or even particularly well-known force within that field (as yet anyway). Its influence has grown quietly, in a somewhat roundabout way, through disciplinary exchanges and multicultural alliances.
Strictly speaking, the first work on PPR was done by philosophers of science (as discussed here). Its implications for cultural analysis were first discussed by Mohanty, a professor of English at Cornell University, in a series of papers he began publishing in the early 1990s. In a conversation earlier this summer, he recalled having been very strongly drawn to structuralist and poststructuralist thinkers at the start of his career, only to find that the critical perspectives they offered were hardening into an orthodoxy.
In particular, a dominant trend in critical theory was the rejection of the concept of objectivity as something that rests on a more or less naive epistemology: a simple belief that "facts" exist in some pristine state untouched by "theory." To avoid being naive, the dutiful student learned to insist that, after all, all facts come to us embedded in various assumptions about the world. Hence (ta da!) "objectivity" exists only within an agreed-upon framework. It is relative to that framework. So it isn’t really objective....
What Mohanty found in his readings of the philosophy of science were much less naïve, and more robust, conceptions of objectivity than the straw men being thrashed by young Foucauldians at the time. We are not all prisoners of our paradigms. Some theoretical frameworks permit the discovery of new facts and the testing of interpretations or hypotheses. Others do not. In short, objectivity is a possibility and a goal -- not just in the natural sciences, but for social inquiry and humanistic research as well.
Mohanty’s major theoretical statement on PPR arrived in 1997 with Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multicultural Politics (Cornell University Press). Because poststructurally inspired notions of cultural relativism are usually understood to be left wing in intention, there is often a tendency to assume that hard-edged notions of objectivity must have conservative implications. But Mohanty’s work went very much against the current.
"Since the lowest common principle of evaluation is all that I can invoke," wrote Mohanty, complaining about certain strains of multicultural relativism, "I cannot -- and consequently need not -- think about how your space impinges on mine or how my history is defined together with yours. If that is the case, I may have started by declaring a pious political wish, but I end up denying that I need to take you seriously."
PPR did not require throwing out the multicultural baby with the relativist bathwater, however. It meant developing ways to think about cultural identity and its discontents. A number of Mohanty's students and scholarly colleagues have pursued the implications of postpositive identity politics. I've written elsewhere about Moya, an associate professor of English at Stanford University who has played an important role in developing PPR ideas about identity. And one academic critic has written an interesting review essay on early postpositive scholarship -- highly recommended for anyone with a hankering for more cultural theory right about now.
Not everybody with a sophisticated epistemological critique manages to turn it into a functioning think tank -- which is what started to happen when people in the postpositive circle started organizing the first Future of Minority Studies meetings at Cornell and Stanford in 2000. Others followed at the University of Michigan and at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Two years ago FMS applied for a grant from Mellon Foundation, receiving $350,000 to create a series of programs for graduate students and junior faculty interested in minority studies, and for scholars from minority backgrounds who work in the humanities and the humanistic social sciences.
The FMS Summer Institute, first held in 2005, is a two-week seminar with about a dozen participants -- most of them ABD or just starting their first tenure-track jobs. The institute is followed by a much larger colloquium (the part I got to attend last week). As schools of thought in the humanities go, the postpositivists are remarkably light on the in-group jargon. Someone emerging from the Institute does not, it seems, need a translator to be understood by the uninitated. Nor was there a dominant theme at the various panels I heard.
Rather, the distinctive quality of FMS discourse seems to derive from a certain very clear, but largely unstated, assumption: It can be useful for scholars concerned with issues particular to one group to listen to the research being done on problems pertaining to other groups.
That sounds pretty simple. But there is rather more behind it than the belief that we should all just try to get along. Diversity (of background, of experience, of disciplinary formation) is not something that exists alongside or in addition to whatever happens in the "real world." It is an inescapable and enabling condition of life in a more or less democratic society. And anyone who wants it to become more democratic, rather than less, has an interest in learning to understand both its inequities and how other people are affected by them.
A case in point might be the findings discussed by Claude Steele, a professor of psychology at Stanford, in a panel on Friday. His paper reviewed some of the research on "identity contingencies," meaning "things you have to deal with because of your social identity." One such contingency is what he called "stereotype threat" -- a situation in which an individual becomes aware of the risk that what you are doing will confirm some established negative quality associated with your group. And in keeping with the threat, there is a tendency to become vigilant and defensive.
Steele did not just have a string of concepts to put up on PowerPoint. He had research findings on how stereotype threat can affect education. The most striking involved results from a puzzle-solving test given to groups of white and black students. When the test was described as a game, the scores for the black students were excellent -- conspicuously higher, in fact, than the scores of white students. But in experiments where the very same puzzle was described as an intelligence test, the results were reversed. The black kids scores dropped by about half, while the graph for their white peers spiked.
The only variable? How the puzzle was framed -- with distracting thoughts about African-American performance on IQ tests creating "stereotype threat" in a way that game-playing did not.
Steele also cited an experiment in which white engineering students were given a mathematics test. Just beforehand, some groups were told that Asian students usually did really well on this particular test. Others were simply handed the test without comment. Students who heard about their Asian competitors tended to get much lower scores than the control group.
Extrapolate from the social psychologist’s experiments with the effect of a few innocent-sounding remarks -- and imagine the cumulative effect of more overt forms of domination. The picture is one of a culture that is profoundly wasteful, even destructive, of the best abilities of many of its members.
"It’s not easy for minority folks to discuss these things," Satya Mohanty told me on the final day of the colloquium. "But I don't think we can afford to wait until it becomes comfortable to start thinking about them. Our future depends on it. By ‘our’ I mean everyone’s future. How we enrich and deepen our democratic society and institutions depends on the answers we come up with now."
Portions of the Colloquium will be made available online. For updates, and more information on the Future of Minority Studies project, check the FMS Web site.
A version of the keynote speech from this year’s Colloquium, “Multiculturalism, Universalism, and the 21st Century Academy,” by Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president of Syracuse University, will appear soon at Inside Higher Ed.
The following essay was adapted from the author's keynote address at for the Future of Minority Studies Summer Institute Colloquium, at Stanford University last month. Last week, Scott McLemee explored the colloquium in Intellectual Affairs.
Preamble: What Keeps Chancellors Up at Night?
Two years ago I attended a conference of presidents in which among the many panel discussions on American Competitiveness (“The World is Flat” ), Federal Science Funding, The Future of the Humanities, and the like, was one panel entitled: “What Keeps Presidents and Chancellors Up at Night?” Expecting to hear a great deal about the arms race in intercollegiate athletics -- absolutely a genuine concern -- I was rather surprised to hear instead about multiculturalism and what might be called its associated “culture wars.”
Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised, as there had been so many high profile examples, from the public’s reaction to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill assigning the Qur’an as its first year shared reading to the media coverage of strife in Middle East studies at Columbia University. Moreover, I had just spent six years defending affirmative action at Michigan and three years in the midst of debates at Illinois on the campus mascot, Chief Illiniwek. Anyone in these positions long enough knows well that universities are like sponges for society’s tensions and that one way or another something will erupt on every campus that reflects the fraying of multicultural community and the state of “civil” society.
Whether it is in athletics or the student media, in the classroom or in campus organizations, tensions over religion, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, are powder kegs on our multicultural campuses -- as they are of course in our cities and towns. As one of my colleagues noted, conflicts, such as occurred at Duke recently, can happen on any one of our campuses in one form or another. At Syracuse, for example, we are overcoming the impact on our campus of the production of an entertainment television show, by a student-run station, that used caricatures of various groups as “humor.” As at Duke, when we go beyond finger pointing, these incidents alert us to our communal responsibilities, and to the work still to be done on our campuses and in our connected communities.
For not being surprised doesn’t mean we can stop talking about it. There is a crying need to take these kinds of incidents -- and they are indeed widespread -- seriously as symptoms of a society that is not comfortable with pluralism. I suggest that we address this state of affairs with the same deep thinking that we give to understanding how to respond to our increasingly “flat world,” for it is as much in our national interest. In fact, I suggest that thoughtful analyses of group dynamics and communal responsibility in a diverse society may actually help us better face the “flat world.” Instead of competitively fighting between ourselves for a shrinking piece of the pie -- whether in higher education or in our connected communities -- shouldn’t we learn to live and work together and find innovations that enlarge the pie? Wouldn’t that get us closer to fulfilling the agenda of universal human rights that lies at the foundation of a just and effective society?
Taking Groups Seriously
Many people’s reaction to these “culture wars” is to suggest that we all just turn our backs on groups altogether -- as when people call for a color-blind or culture-blind or gender-blind society. Not only do I see this as naïve (in the face of pervasive group dynamics and tensions), but also as missing the constructive role that groups must play in promoting a social justice agenda and building an effective multicultural community. Taking groups seriously can be constructive both for those who are on the “outside” trying to get in to a particular community and for those who are more securely established as insiders. This is especially true in a world full of insiders and outsiders -- and we all occupy both positions -- in which as outsiders we could benefit from seeing more personal possibilities (on the inside) and as insiders we could contribute by taking more social responsibility (for those outside). And, like it or not, we need to build effective multicultural communities to be competitive and just, so we better start taking groups seriously.
We first need to recognize some “facts” of social life and the pervasive disparities in our pluralistic, insider-outsider world, and find an avenue to constructively confront them. Here is where it helps to know something about the psychology of multiculturalism (and of insiders and outsiders) and to work with it, rather than remain oblivious to its powerful impact. For, in the midst of this fraying of community, and widening of the gap between those who belong and those who don’t, it is easy to miss the fundamental interdependence of individuals and community. Easy to miss the truth in the oft repeated notion that if we don’t all hang together we will all hang separately.
So, in the hopes of starting this discussion, I turn now, as a social psychologist and educator, but also as a chancellor in charge of a multicultural campus community, to consider why and how we go wrong in our group dynamics, and what we might do differently to face our challenges head on.
The Social Embedding of Individuality
To see how the social embedding of individual human potential -- which I will abbreviate from now on as “individuality” -- works, it is important to start from the premise that self-construals -- who we think we are and what we see as possible for our selves -- matter. But, we do not think about our selves in a social vacuum, either.
Our self-construals are embedded within and shaped by critical cultural practices and social organizations that constitute a matrix of opportunities and constraints in our daily lives. Over the long course of history, for example, numerous different cultures and societies have expressed more concern about the educational and career paths of boys than girls.
These self-construals are also embedded in a matrix of critical interpersonal relations through which we garner diagnostic input from other people about our selves. Other people serve as sources of social comparison, including those whom we take on as models or idols. Importantly, other people play a fundamental role in legitimating our selves -- as we are now and might possibly become -- especially those with some power over us, but also sometimes those peers who provide consensus information about similar experiences.
Social group memberships, particularly those organized around gender, race/ethnicity, religion, sexuality, disability, and nationality, constitute critical influences in most cultures on both the matrix of opportunities and constraints and the input received from others. Of course, individuals personalize their social identities (contrary to an essentialist view of identity politics), by accepting or rejecting group-based constraints and feedback, but nevertheless, their impact is pervasive.
Claude Steele’s elegant demonstrations of stereotype vulnerability document the pervasiveness of these group-based dynamics. For example, as he has shown in laboratory experiments at Stanford, the performance of high achieving women students, including those who consider themselves as analytically smart, can be undermined by simply and subtly invoking gender stereotypes with an off-hand comment about the test measuring analytic ability. There is nothing overt or “in your face” about these experimental manipulations, and certainly nothing that should over-ride a student’s own acknowledged individual performance history. Yet, it is hard to act as an individual, when the “group” lurks in the background.
And beyond the laboratory, our groups often don’t just lurk quietly in the background. This is a media culture in which there is relatively constant attention to and (perhaps inadvertent) promotion of group-based stereotypes of all sorts, in the sports and entertainment arenas, in politics, and, yes, even in the academy. Consider, for example, the flood of media coverage after Larry Summers questioned the capacity of women and girls to be stars in science and mathematics. Even, as in his case, when the marketing of group-based stereotypes comes unintentionally, those who are “marked” by highly visible and/or contested identities find them hard to ignore. Few women scientists had a choice of whether to be scrutinized under those conditions -- their individuality was swept into a tidal pool of issues defined by their “group.”
“Insiders” and “Outsiders” and the Social Embedding of Individuality
However, the social embedding of individuality varies importantly as a function of the “location” of one’s significant groups -- with respect to status, security, and power -- in a particular community. Those whose groups are less well-entrenched in a community -- “outsiders” -- will be more marked by and connected to their group(s) than will “insiders.” By contrast “insiders” operate more easily as “individuals” and feel both less connection to and less identified by their groups.
In turn, this different psychology of insiders and outsiders is readily apparent in different attitudes toward communal responsibility in a diverse and multicultural community. That is, as insiders, we take a great deal, cognitively and socially, for granted in daily life. We engage in cognitive egocentrism, using, for example, our own experience and assumptions as a road-map for making judgments about others, rarely taking into account that they may be operating with a different matrix of opportunities and constraints, and with less of a sense of individuality.
Most specifically, we underplay the level of scrutiny and constraint that is felt by an outsider when his or her group is even subtly or minimally invoked, not to mention derided. The degree to which outsiders’ identities are wrapped up in their group(s) seems almost irrational to an insider, prompting them to question the authenticity of outsider reactions. Frequently, for example, an outsider will be described as “over-reacting,” or being too “pc.” It is extremely difficult for an insider to imagine their individuality so intertwined with their group(s). They simply don’t live a life of “guilt by group association,” and so they are skeptical of and not particularly empathetic to those who do. In turn, by failing to recognize these constraints on individuality and on the freedom to dissociate from the group, insiders miss a lot about the social life of outsiders, and this is a critical impediment to interpersonal trust.
By contrast, the psychology of the insider at least with respect to his or her “visible” groups -- such as race or ethnicity or gender -- is much less explicit or “marked.” For the insider, groups are more about voluntary association, such that they can be held at an “arms length,” especially if something goes wrong. Since, as insiders, we each view ourselves largely as individual actors, it is relatively easy, in good conscience, to distance from the group’s mistakes or the culture of an organization. There is little or no “guilt by group association.” Others may have made a mistake, but “if I didn’t touch it, I didn’t do anything.” Moreover, the insider remains ever on guard against any ill-informed accusations that would implicate him or her in some unfair guilt by association with the (mistakes of others in the) group.
This psychology is, of course, perfectly rational and fair from an individualistic perspective, but not terribly good for building a community in which only some people feel disproportionately “marked” by their groups, unable to just walk away. Surely, we all want to avoid unfair individual blame, but at the same time we should feel some communal responsibility when an organization or group to which we belong ends up hurting others. This should be the case even when no harm was intended and you can’t imagine why they are hurt. This “arms length” relationship to group behavior is another critical impediment to facilitating a broad sense of fairness and interdependence in a diverse community.
“Epistemic Privilege” of the Outsider
While the insider’s gaze is generally away from the group, the outsider instead looks right at it with, what Satya Mohanty and others refer to as the “epistemic privilege of the oppressed.” Outsiders typically see how their group marks them, and how therefore social location matters for what they can do and how they can expect to be treated. Largely, this clarity of vision comes from being in a perpetual state of guardedness and uncertainty, examining the social landscape, always prepared for some group-based challenge.
By contrast, the challenges faced as an insider come less routinely, and relate more to individual comparisons or interactions, one on one, with peers, competitors, idols, and the like. What insiders rarely face head on is some group-based challenge -- direct or subtle -- that they see as constraining who they are or what they (as individuals) can do.
In other words, the outsider lives with the discomfort of epistemic privilege and the insider lives with the comfort of cognitive egocentrism, often oblivious to the effects of social location on others. And, the epistemic privilege of the outsider does not raise the probability of being heard by the insider.
The outsider always has a “theory” about social location in need of some validation. Like any theory, there are multiple avenues for validation. The outsider can spend time with other group members, sharing experiences and insights that provide some validation by consensus. Many of us remember the “consciousness raising” groups of the women’s movement as just such experiences. And we see powerful examples of the importance of consensus information in group affirmation all the time, including, for example, the social support that junior faculty give each other, the importance of professional identity group organizations (such as black journalists or women engineers), and the theme houses on college campuses.
These consensus-building experiences are very important and should never be under-estimated as part of the constructive role that groups can play when we take them seriously. However, precisely because the insiders in the community will likely remain blind to or skeptical of the conclusions of such discussions, other avenues of validation are needed. The outsider needs to be heard beyond the group, and the insider needs to listen to other groups.
How do we create a context for such inter-group dialogue in which the guardedness of the outsider can lessen and the insider can go beyond the egocentrism of individuality. As insiders, we each can listen -- and move toward communal responsibility -- when we get past an individualized framework to see the powerful role of groups in social life. When insiders begin to acknowledge that outsiders have little or no choice but to be seen through their groups then suspicion often evaporates, and the potential for collaboration and community grows. This is when multicultural education is at its best, and when colleges and universities can play a very constructive role in turning the tables of epistemic privilege.
In this regard, it is worth repeating that contrary to an essentialist version of identity-politics, we are all both insiders and outsiders in our lives. That is, the experiences of group-based vulnerability, on one hand, and individuality, on the other, are shared, even if they are distributed differently for different groups or individuals. This is not to say that some dimensions of social organization, such as race/ethnicity or gender in our society, don’t powerfully tip the scale toward constraint over opportunity, group over individual. It is simply to say that the ground is ripe, even for those frequently on the inside, to engage attention to social inequality, in part by turning the tables on whose insights matter and who is listening.
Giving Voice to Outsiders and Asking Insiders to Listen
But, how do we do this in the midst of inter-group competition and suspicion? How do we do it when our campuses and our communities more broadly are quite divided, with many insiders and outsiders, and two strikingly different psychologies about group life?
I would point to two types of multicultural “projects” that can help bridge these two psychologies, while also creating more educational opportunity and more scholarly innovations that matter to the world. One project is internally-focused on constructing opportunities for intra- and inter-group dialogue that capitalize on the relevance of group-based vulnerabilities for virtually everyone. The other project is outwardly focused on connecting the campus -- and its diverse group of scholars and students -- to our broader communities, capitalizing in that case on faculty interest in public scholarship and students’ interests in volunteerism. In each project, however, the central ingredient to success will be to take multicultural groups seriously, unpacking rather than covering up disparities in voice and opportunity and building communal responsibility.
As to the “internal” project of facilitating intra- and inter-group dialogue that address social inequalities head on, this work is, of course, at the core of the expertise of those gathered here and central to the agenda of the Future of Minorities Studies. In this work, and I would point to the curriculum developed at the University of Michigan by Patricia Gurin and her colleagues as a prototype -- there is a commitment to exposing inter-group inequality through group-based experiences that individuals can share. So, for example, women in a dialogue on gender might find consensus support for their experience of not always being listened to by men. At the same time, the men in the group might begin to listen to these observations and take them seriously, even if they believe there was no “intent” to discriminate. Sometimes, the tables turn in a dialogue, so that the experience of being “marked” by one’s group can be felt even by those who more often than not operate with more individuality in their lives. These moments of “epistemic privilege” for the insider -- when our own group-based vulnerability intersects with the consensually expressed views of the outsiders -- can make us more receptive to seeing the situation of outsiders in a new and more empathic light. When the tables turn, common ground, respect and shared responsibility emerge.
At that point, it is also critical to relate these personal experiences to the pervasive social inequalities that attach to some groups -- and therefore to their members -- in particularly powerful ways in our society, and therefore also on our campuses. Through this mixture of the personal and the general, in narratives and in empirical work, it is possible to begin to unpack how for some people, there is often “guilt by group association,” whereas for others, communal responsibility is easy to keep at “arm’s length.”
To make a real difference, however, these dialogues on the power of groups and the effects of social location -- the different psychologies of outsiders and insiders -- must reach far across a campus. While there is little doubt that some group-based vulnerabilities are more pernicious and pervasive than others -- and certainly race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and disability fall in this category -- the framework here can be applied broadly and in helpful ways. Many campuses, for example, worry about the kinds of mentoring given to their junior faculty -- in whom they have a substantial investment for the future. I would suggest that this same analysis can be applied constructively to the experiences of untenured versus tenured faculty, and especially if at the same time one considers the issues confronting women and junior faculty of color. Taking this approach one step further, I believe that academic leaders -- including chancellors, deans and department chairs -- can profit from a better understanding of the outsider experiences of particular groups of faculty, staff, and students, and particular disciplines, such as minority studies, for example. It is not at all uncommon on campuses to see the tell-tale signs of insiders and outsiders, each with “good intentions,” talking past each other -- operating with different expectations from different psychologies. We can do something about this if we take on this multicultural campus project.
Connecting to Communities and Turning the Epistemic Table
The complementary project that I see for universities is an external one, in which we forge outward-looking connections to diverse communities, working on the pressing issues of our times -- from failing schools to environmental degradation to inter-religious conflict.
When universities start collaborating with their connected communities (at home and abroad) on the most pressing issues of the day, I have seen the tables turn in ways that benefit both our innovations and the quality of our multicultural community. Why does this happen? I believe the answer lies first in the nature of the problems to be solved now and the connected question of who becomes the expert. It is hard, for example, to make progress on environmental sustainability in an urban ecosystem without addressing questions of environmental justice, and whose voice do we need to listen to in that case? How do we tackle the urban epidemic of diabetes, even if we develop a better understanding through genomics of the disease itself, without contextualizing its spread within the broader questions of race disparities in health? Wouldn’t we understand the genesis of inter-religious conflict better if we engaged with refugee communities in our own cities and towns? It is virtually impossible to find a problem of major importance to our society in which the insights of a diverse, multicultural community would not be very valuable to the solutions.
Additionally, there is a growing cadre of faculty -- including many women and faculty of color -- extending well beyond the social sciences into the arts, humanities, sciences and professions, who are increasingly doing scholarly work that matters to communities. This engagement can also capitalize on the robust presence of service-learning curriculum and volunteerism on campuses. For oddly, interest in service-learning and volunteerism is very high, despite the individualism and detachment, even communal “irresponsibility,” that I described earlier. This engagement of students and faculty in community-based work, and work around the world, can provide a launching pad for sustained attention to questions of social inequality and multicultural community.
It also does something else dramatic. It turns the tables on who has voice, and who can benefit by listening. It reverses roles and the epistemic privilege -- perhaps even its enlightening discomfort -- spreads to a different set of actors. As George Sanchez has suggested, those who often feel relegated to the outside of our campus communities, such as faculty and students of color, emerge with more expertise and authentic voice in this agenda, as they often begin with more “standing” in the surrounding community and on the issues at hand. The social/academic landscape begins to change when the insights of outsiders -- either from the community outside or on the academic margins -- begin to be heard.
This reversal of perspective (or social location) not only prepares everyone for doing the work of the nation, but as importantly it shines some light on inequality. It shows both the strength of diverse groups and cultures and constraints on them. In turn, this is a lesson with powerful ramifications back on campus. As we engage with our communities, we also recognize the stresses of the broader world as they are “brought to” the campus, and then feel some fundamental responsibility to address them as part of building a productive campus community.
Rewarding Scholarship in Action
And when we take that responsibility seriously, then new scholarly and educational vistas open too. At Syracuse, for example, our academic vision is based on the notion of "Scholarship in Action," where interdisciplinary teams of faculty and students engage with communities of experts on issues that matter, such as disabilities, shrinking cities, failing schools, neighborhood entrepreneurship, religious pluralism, or environmental sustainability and the urban ecosystem.
These collaborations, like our Partnership for Better Education with the Syracuse City Schools, create a shared mission that breaks down barriers, between campus and community, and embeds the traditional diversity agenda within the academic work of the institution, and in turn embeds that work in the public good.
To make the Scholarship in Action agenda work, however, we must change our reward structure for faculty who do this collaborative work. We must, for example, support faculty members who want to do public scholarship, with results that may be published in academic, peer-reviewed journals, but may also result in network news specials, digital modules for public libraries, or museum exhibitions. We must find the right incentives for a diverse faculty to engage with communities of experts on innovation that matters, and to that end, many institutions, including Syracuse, are re-evaluating their tenure and promotion criteria. A tenure-team initiative, organized by Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, a 70-institution consortium, is gathering best practices on how to promote standards of excellence in public scholarship. Momentum is growing to take public scholarship seriously.
In my view, investing in excellence in public scholarship in our multicultural communities is a pathway toward bringing questions of diversity and diverse students and faculty from the margins of our institution to the center. As we work on innovation that matters -- from the science needed to remediate environmental pollution in our cities and waterways to the art that gives voice to refugees resettling in America -- we learn to value diversity and the insights of diverse others. We also learn to listen harder to each other, dropping a bit of the egocentric covering of our own positions. We see the observations of our peers and colleagues within the broader social landscape in which they are shaped, and we take more responsibility for changing that landscape. We come to see that multicultural progress will be shared, but only if we also take groups seriously.
Multiculturalism, Universalism, and the Lessons of Citizenship
At the end of the day, the hope of these two kinds of projects -- internal multicultural dialogue and external multicultural collaboration -- is that we all come to value diverse groups, not just diverse individuals. We will do this by expanding the lesson of citizenship from one purely about individual rights to one about connectivity and responsibility -- and the social embedding of individuality. We’ll learn that we are all in this together, and we can’t just make creating opportunity someone else’s project. If this works, then I believe that, at least in this regard, presidents will sleep at night, and, more importantly, universities will make a difference in promoting social justice and universal human rights.
Nancy Cantor is chancellor of Syracuse University. Her keynote address in full is available online. A video of the address is available on the institute's Web site.
As a teacher of writing and literature at Salem State College, I hear a lot of stories. My students, although they may never have ventured more than 20 miles from where they were born, bring hard lessons of endurance to the classroom that seem more profound than any I'd had at their age. For years I've believed that they bring a certain wisdom to the class, a wisdom that doesn't score on the SAT or other standardized tests. The old teaching cliché -- I learn from my students -- feels true, but it is hard to explain. I'm not particularly naïve. I know that life can be difficult. So it is not that my students initiate me into the world of sorrow. It is that they often bring their sorrows, and their struggles, to the material, and when they do, it makes life and literature seem so entwined as to be inseparable.
This past year, for the first time, I taught African American literature: two sections each semester of a yearlong sequence, around 22 students per section. The first semester we began with Phyllis Wheatley and ended with the Harlem Renaissance. The second semester we started with Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright and ended with Percival Everett's satire, Erasure, published early in the new millennium.
The students in these classes weren't the ones I typically had in my writing classes. About half were white, and the other half were black, Latino, or Asian. They were generally uninterested or inexperienced in reading, simply trying to satisfy the college's literature requirement. One day before spring break I was assigning the class a hundred pages from Toni Morrison's Sula, and one student looked aghast. "We have to read during vacation?" he sputtered. I learned from them the whole year.
In the fall semester, I was teaching W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk. As classes go, it had been fairly dull. Du Bois's essays didn't have the compelling story line of the slave narratives that we had read earlier in the semester. We had just begun examining Du Bois's idea of "double consciousness." It is a complicated notion that an African American, at least around 1900 when Du Bois was writing, had "no true self-consciousness" because he was "always looking at one's self through the eyes of others ... measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." In class, I read this definition, paraphrased it, then asked, "Does this make sense to you?"
There was the usual pause after I ask a question and then, from Omar, a large, seemingly lethargic African American, came a soulful, deep-throated "yeah." The word reverberated in the haphazard circle of desks as we registered the depths from which he had spoken. The room's silence after his "yeah" was not the bored silence that had preceded it. The air was charged. Someone had actually meant something he had said. Someone was talking about his own life, even if it was only one word.
I followed up: "So what do you do about this feeling? How do you deal with it?"
Everyone was staring at Omar, but he didn't seem to notice. He looked at me a second, then put his head down and shook it, slowly, as if seeing and thinking were too much for him. "I don't know, man. I don't know."
The rest of the heads in class dropped down, too, and students began reviewing the passage, which was no longer just a bunch of incomprehensible words by some long-dead guy with too many initials.
Every book that we studied after that day, some student would bring up double consciousness, incorporating it smartly into our discussion. Omar had branded the concept into everyone's minds, including mine.
One idea that arises from double consciousness is that, without "true self-consciousness," you risk giving in and accepting society's definitions of yourself, becoming what society tells you that you are. Such a capitulation may be what happens to Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright's Native Son, a novel we read during the second semester. Native Son is a brutal book. Bigger, a poor African American from the Chicago ghetto, shows little regret after he murders two women. His first victim is Mary, the daughter of a wealthy white family for whom Bigger works as a driver. After Bigger carries a drunk, semiconscious Mary up to her room, he accidentally suffocates her with a pillow while trying to keep her quiet so his presence won't be discovered. Realizing what he has done, he hacks up her body and throws it in the furnace. Emboldened rather than horrified, he writes a ransom note to the family and eventually kills his girlfriend, Bessie, whom he drags into the scheme. In the end, he's found out, and, after Chicago is thrown into a hysterical, racist-charged panic, he's caught, brought to trial -- a very long trial that contains a communist lawyer's exhaustive defense of Bigger that is an indictment of capitalism and racism -- and sentenced to death.
Readers, to this day, are not sure what to make of Bigger. Is he to be pitied? Is he a warning? A symbol? A product of American racism?
During the second week of teaching Native Son, I was walking through the college's athletic facility when I heard my name, "Mr. Scrimgeour. Mr. Scrimgeour..."
I turn and it is Keith, an African American from the class. "Hey, I wanted to tell you, I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" He has missed a few classes, but no more than most students. Maybe he hasn't turned in his last response paper.
"Yeah, I'm going to talk in class more." I nod. He looks at me as if I'm not following. "Like Bigger, I don't know.... I don't like it." His white baseball cap casts a shadow over his face so that I can barely see his eyes.
"What don't you like?"
"He's, like," Keith grimaces, as if he isn't sure that he should say what he is about to say. "He's like a stereotype -- he's like what people -- some people -- say about us."
On "us," he points to his chest, takes a step back, and gives a pained half grin, his teeth a bright contrast to his dark, nearly black skin.
"Yeah," I say. "That's understandable. You should bring that up in the next class. We'll see what other people think."
He nods. "And I'm sorry," he says, taking another step back, "It's just that...." He taps his chest again, "I'm shy."
Keith has trouble forming complete sentences when he writes. I don't doubt that my fourth-grade son can write with fewer grammatical errors. Yet he had identified the criticism of Wright's book made by such writers as James Baldwin and David Bradley, whose essays on Native Son we would read after we finished the novel. And he knew something serious was at stake -- his life -- that chest, and what was inside it, that he'd tapped so expressively. Was Bigger what Baldwin identified as the "inverse" of the saccharine Uncle Tom stereotype? Was Wright denying Bigger humanity? And, if so, should we be reading the book?
To begin answering these questions required an understanding of Bigger. For me, such an understanding would come not just from the text, but from my students' own lives.
That Keith apologized for his lack of participation in class is not surprising. My students are generally apologetic. "I'm so ashamed," one student said to me, explaining why she didn't get a phone message I'd left her. "I live in a shelter with my daughter." Many of them feel a sense of guilt for who they are, a sense that whatever went wrong must be their fault. These feelings, while often debilitating, enable my students, even Keith, to understand Bigger, perhaps better than most critics. Keith, who -- at my prompting -- spoke in class about being pulled over by the police, understood the accumulation of guilt that makes you certain that what you are doing, and what you will do, is wrong. Bigger says he knew he was going to murder someone long before he actually does, that it was as if he had already murdered.
Unlike his critics, Richard Wright had an unrelentingly negative upbringing. As he details in his autobiography, Black Boy, Wright was raised in poverty by a family that discouraged books in the violently racist South. There was little, if anything, that was sustaining or nurturing. Perhaps a person has to have this sense of worthlessness ground into one's life to conceive of a character like Bigger. Like my students, one must be told that one isn't much often enough so that it is not simply an insult, but a seemingly intractable truth.
"I'm sorry," Keith had said. It was something Bigger could never really bring himself to say, and in this sense the Salem State students were much different from Bigger. Their response to society's intimidation isn't Bigger's rebelliousness. Wright documents Bigger's sense of discomfort in most social interactions, particularly when speaking with whites, during which he is rendered virtually mute, stumbling through "yes, sirs" and loathing both himself and the whites while doing so.
Although my students weren't violent, they identified with Bigger's discomfort -- they'd experienced similar, less extreme discomforts talking to teachers, policemen, and other authority figures. As a way into discussing Bigger, I'd asked them to write for a few minutes in class about a time in which they felt uncomfortable and how they had responded to the situation. I joined them in the exercise. Here's what I wrote:
As a teenager, after school, I would go with a few other guys and smoke pot in the parking lot of the local supermarket, then go into the market's foyer and play video games stoned. While I felt uncomfortable about smoking pot in the parking lot, I didn't really do much. I tried to urge the guys I was with to leave the car and go inside and play the video games, but it wouldn't mean the same thing: to just go in and play the games would be childish, uncool, but to do it after smoking pot made it OK -- and once I was in the foyer, it was OK.; I wouldn't get in trouble. But mostly I did nothing to stop us. I toked, like everyone else. I got quiet. I didn't really hear the jokes, but forced laughter anyway. I was very attentive to my surroundings -- was that lady walking out with the grocery cart looking at us? Afterward, when we went in and manipulated those electronic pulses of light and laughed at our failures, we weren't just laughing at our failures, we were laughing at what we had gotten away with.
After they had worked in groups, comparing their own experiences to Bigger's, I shared my own writing with the class. Of course, there were smiles, as well as a few looks of astonishment and approbation. I had weighed whether to confess to my "crime," and determined that it might lead to learning, as self-disclosure can sometimes do, and so here I was, hanging my former self out on a laundry line for their inspection.
What came of the discussion was, first of all, how noticeable the differences were between my experience and Bigger's. I was a middle class white boy who assumed he would be going to college. I believed I had a lot to lose from being caught, while Bigger, trapped in a life of poverty, may not have felt such risks. Also, the discomfort I was feeling was from peer pressure, rather than from the dominant power structure. Indeed, my discomfort arose from fact that I was breaking the rules, whereas Bigger's arose from trying to follow the rules -- how he was supposed to act around whites.
But there was also a curious similarity between my experience and Bigger's. Playing those video games would have meant something different had we not smoked pot beforehand. The joy of wasting an afternoon dropping quarters into Galaga was about knowing that we had put one over on the authorities; it was about the thrill of getting away with something, of believing, for at least a brief time, that we were immune to society's rules. Like me after I was safely in the supermarket, Bigger, upon seeing that he could get away with killing Mary, felt "a queer sense of power," and believed that he was "living, truly and deeply." In a powerless life, Bigger had finally tasted the possibility of power.
My students know Bigger moderately well. They don't have his violent streak; they don't know his feelings of being an outsider, estranged from family and community despite hanging out with his cronies in the pool hall and being wept over by his mother.
What they understand is his sense of powerlessness. They have never been told that they can be players on the world stage, and, mostly, their lives tell them that they can't, whether it's the boss who (they think) won't give them one night off a semester to go to a poetry reading, or the anonymous authority of the educational bureaucracy that tells them that due to a missed payment, or deadline, they are no longer enrolled. As one student writes in his midterm: "Bigger is an African American man living in a world where who he is and what he does doesn't matter, and in his mind never will."
I went to a talk recently by an elderly man who had worked for the CIA for 30 years, an engineer involved with nuclear submarines who engaged in the cloak-and-dagger of the cold war. The layers of secrecy astonish. How much was going on under the surface! -- the trailing and salvaging of nuclear subs; the alerts in which cities and nations were held over the abyss in the trembling fingers of men as lost as the rest of us, though they generally did not realize it.
During the questions afterward, someone asked about the massive buildup of nuclear arsenals. "Didn't anyone look at these thousands of nuclear warheads we were making and say 'This is crazy?' "
The speaker nodded, his bald freckled head moving slowly. He took a deep breath. "It was crazy, but when you are in the middle of it, it is hard to see. No one said anything."
After the talk, I fell into conversation with the speaker's son, a psychologist in training. I was noting how tremendously distant this world of espionage was from the world of my students, how alien it was. And I said that the stories of near nuclear annihilation frightened me a lot more than they would frighten them. In essence, my students saw their lives like Bigger's: The great world of money and power was uninterested in them and moved in its ways regardless of what they did. Like Bigger, they would never fly the airplanes that he, who had once dreamed of being a pilot, watches passing over the Chicago ghetto.
"It's too bad they feel so disempowered," the son said, and it is. Yet there is something valuable in their psychology, too. It is liberating to let that world -- money and power -- go, to be able to see the outlines of your existence, so that you can begin to observe, and know, and ultimately make an acceptable marriage with your life. Some might say it is the first step to becoming a writer.
After September 11, 2001, a surprising number of students didn't exhibit the depth of horror that I had witnessed others display on television. "I'm sorry if I sound cold," one student said, "but that has nothing to do with me." One of my most talented students even wrote in an essay, "The war has nothing to do with my life. I mean the blood and the death disgusts me, but I'm sorry -- I just don't care."
And then I watched them realize how it did indeed have to do with them. It meant that they lost their jobs at the airport, or they got called up and sent to Afghanistan or Iraq. The world doesn't let you escape that easily. Bigger got the chair.
It has been two months since we finished Native Son. The school year is ending, and I rush to class, a bit late, trying to decide whether to cancel it so that I can have lunch with a job candidate -- we're hiring someone in multicultural literature, and I'm on the search committee. As I make my way over, I feel the tug of obligation -- my students would benefit from a discussion of the ending of Percival Everett's Erasure, even though, or perhaps especially because, almost none of them have read it. Yet it's a fine spring day, a Friday, and they will not be interested in being in class, regardless of what I pull out of my teaching bag of tricks. I weigh the options -- dull class for everyone or the guilt of canceling a class (despite the department chair's suggestion that I cancel it). Before I enter the room, I'm still not quite sure, but I'm leaning toward canceling. I take a deep breath and then breathe out, exhaling my guilt into the tiled hallway.
I open the door; the students are mostly there, sitting in a circle, as usual. Only a few are talking. I walk toward the board, and -- I freeze -- scrawled across it is:
Why are we even here for? You already gave us the final. It's not like you're going to help us answer it.
Looking at it now, I think the underline was a nice touch, but at that moment, for a rage-filled second, I think, "We're going to have class, dammit! Make them suffer." I stand with my back to them, slowing my breath, my options zipping through my mind while sorrow (despair?) and anger bubble in me and pop, pop into the afternoon's clear light.
So much for learning. Were our conversations simply for grades? Was that the real story of this year?
When we discussed Native Son, we talked about how easy it was to transfer feelings of guilt to rage at those who make you feel guilty. Bigger's hatred of whites stems from how they make him feel. He pulls a gun and threatens Mary's boyfriend, Jan, when Jan is trying to help him, because Jan has made him feel he has done wrong. In the book, Wright suggests that white society loathes blacks because they are reminders of the great sin of slavery. Is my rage from guilt -- guilt that we haven't really accomplished much this year, guilt that I was willing to cancel a class because I didn't want to endure 45 minutes of bored faces? Pop ... pop.
I dismiss the class and stroll over to the dining commons to collect my free lunch.
Erasure is a brilliant satire, one that contains an entire novella by the book's protagonist, a frustrated African American writer, Monk Ellison, who has been told one too many times by editors that his writings aren't "black enough." The novel within a novel lifts the plot of Native Son almost completely, and it presents a main character, Van Go Jenkins, as the worst stereotype of African American culture, someone without morals, whose only interests are sex and violence. At one point, Van Go slaps one of his sons around -- he has four children by four different women -- because the mentally handicapped three-year-old spilled juice on Van Go's new shirt.
It's clear that Erasure's narrator, Monk, is appalled by the book he writes, and that he's appalled by Native Son and the attitudes about race and writing the novel has fostered. When we do discuss the book in class, I point to a snippet of dialogue that Monk imagines:
D.W. GRIFFITH: I like your book very much.
RICHARD WRIGHT: Thank you.
"So this is a real question Erasure raises," I say. My pulse quickens. I can sense them listening, waiting. "Is this book right about Richard Wright? Is this book fair to him? To Native Son? Has the creation of Bigger Thomas been a disaster for African Americans? Has it skewered the country's view of race in a harmful way?" I pause, content. Even if no one raises a hand, even if no discussion ensues, -- and certainly some discussion will erupt -- I can see the question worming into their minds, a question that they might even try to answer themselves.
La Sauna, the student who never lets me get away with anything, raises her hand: "What do you think?"
What do I think? I wasn't ready for that. What do I think?
What I think, I realize, has been altered by what they think, and what they have taught me about the book, about the world.
There are no definite answers, but my students had helped identify the questions, and had pointed toward possible replies. After we had finished reading Native Son, I asked the class, "How many of you want Bigger to get away, even after he bashes in Bessie's head?" A good third of the class raised their hands, and, like the class itself, those who wanted this double murderer to escape were a mix of men and women, blacks and whites. There are several ways to interpret this, but I don't think it is a sign of callousness, the residue of playing too much Grand Theft Auto. They wanted Bigger to escape because Wright had gotten into Bigger's consciousness deeply and believably enough that he became real, more than a symbol or a stereotype.
I tell them this, how their response to Bigger has influenced my reading. I don't tell them Gina's story.
Gina was one of the students who read the books. She loved Tea Cake and Sula, was torn between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She even visited me in my office once or twice to seek advice about problems with a roommate, or a professor. An African American student from a rough neighborhood, she ended up leaving the college after the semester ended, unable to afford housing costs.
Sometime in March of that semester, Gina came to my office. She had missed class and wanted to turn in her response paper on Native Son. The class had read the essays by Baldwin and Bradley criticizing the novel, and had been asked to evaluate them. Baldwin, Gina tells me, was difficult, "but he was such a good writer."
Did she agree with Baldwin, I ask? Was Bigger denied humanity by Wright? How does she feel toward Bigger?
"I think he needs help," she says, "but I felt sorry for him. I wanted him to be able to understand his life--" I cut in, offering some teacherish observation about how Bigger shows glimmers of understanding in the last part of the book, but her mind is far ahead of me, just waiting for me to stop. I do.
"The book reminded me of the guy who killed my uncle. You probably saw it -- the trial was all over the TV last week."
I shake my head.
The man and an accomplice had murdered her uncle, a local storeowner, three years ago, and the previous week had been sentenced to life without parole. The two had been friends of the uncle's family, had played pool with the uncle the night before, planning to rob and kill him the next day.
"When I saw him sitting there, with his head down, looking all sad, I don't know, I felt sorry for him. I wanted to give him a copy of Native Son. I wanted to walk up to him and put it in his lap. It might help him to understand his life.
She looks at me, her brown face just a few shades darker than mine. She's 19. Her hair is pinned back, and some strands float loose. Her eyes are as wide as half dollars, as if she's asking me something. Without thinking, I nod slowly, trying to hold her gaze. On the shelves surrounding us are the papers and books of my profession, the giant horde that will pursue me until I die.
"My family wants him to suffer -- hard. But I want to talk to him. Do you think that's bad? I want to know why he did it, what happened. I wonder how he'd react if he saw me -- what he'd do if I gave him the book."
I imagined Native Son in the man's lap. The glossy, purple, green, and black cover bright against the courtroom's muted wood, the man's trousers. His hand, smooth with youth, holds its spine. His thumb blots out part of the eerie full-lipped face on the front. As the words of the court fall about him, the book rises and falls ever so slightly, as if breathing.
J.D. Scrimgeour coordinates the creative program at Salem State College and is the author of the poetry collection The Last Miles. This essay is part of his new collection, Themes for English B: A Professor's Education In and Out of Class, which is being released today by the University of Georgia Press and is reprinted here with permission.
Many conservatives believe the firing of University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill will now reduce liberal politics in academia. Many liberals believe that his firing will uphold high standards of academic scholarship. Both are wrong -- because the firing of Churchill reveals a very pernicious kind of exclusionary dogmatism in scholarly research and writing and media reporting. The firing of Professor Churchill for alleged research misconduct ignored evidence to the contrary provided by professors who know his work best, ignored evidence from a committee of scholars who found the investigating committee itself guilty of research misconduct, and ignored all Indigenous evidence and perspectives that are critical of Eurocentric versions of the history of the European invasion of the Americas.
Research misconduct is in the eye of the beholder. Euroamerican teachers and scholars have taught and written for several centuries that Columbus discovered America. That is a more profound and easily provable case of research misconduct than anything of which Churchill has been accused. The Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been here at least 13,000 years and more likely, according to recent DNA research, 50,000 years. This Columbus lie, which is at the foundation of Eurocentric American history, dehumanizes all those who are now called American Indians by discrediting any of their accomplishments as not being human accomplishments. Everyone who has perpetuated this myth over the years should be found guilty of deceit, research misconduct and racism, according to the standards of the investigating committee.
The 1987 edition of the standard American history textbook, American History: A Survey begins by saying, “For thousands of centuries - centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia and Europe - the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of mankind and its works” The book informed its readers that American history “is the story of the creation of a civilization where none existed.” Now that is a very egregious form of “research misconduct.” That statement bears no resemblance to the truth and serves only to continue to misinform and to indoctrinate students in Eurocentric lies.
The committee should have read the 2005 national best selling book 1491, by Charles Mann, for a thorough critique of the statements quoted in American History, and for extensive support for Churchill’s arguments about the history of the Americas. Summarizing research and writing over the last 30-40 years, Mann shows that in 1491 the population of the Americas surpassed that of Europe, that American cities such as Tenochtitlan were larger than any found in Europe at the same time and, unlike European cities, had running water, beautiful botanical gardens and clean streets. I would add that nowhere in Indigenous America in the areas of my research (North and Central America) have any jails been found, so far as I have been able to determine. The earliest American cities were thriving before the Egyptians built their pyramids, and the feats of Indigenous American agriculture were unparalleled anywhere else. The journal Science recently pronounced the development of corn from its ancient noble grass ancestors as probably the greatest botanical achievement of genetic engineering in human history.
The European invasion of the Americas reduced an Indigenous population estimated by many scholars at nearly 100 million or more by 90-95 percent. Shelburne Cook and Woodrow Borah of the University of California at Berkeley spent decades reconstructing the aboriginal population of central Mexico where they determined the population to have been 25.2 million before Cortez’s invasion. Just 100 years later in 1623 only 700,000 had survived the Spanish conquest which destroyed not only millions of people but amazing architecture, art, culture and science, burning nearly all the books in their extensive libraries. The highly regarded historian Richard White has described the results of the invasion of Indigenous America as “the greatest human catastrophe in the history of the planet.”
Most people think the Churchill problem began with his planned speech in 2005 at Hamilton College -- after it was shown that he had written that some of the victims of 9/11 were not entirely innocent (CIA agents housed in the building and some technocrats of Western militarism and financial imperialism according to Churchill's clarification of what he meant in a later press release) and were instead akin to "little Eichmanns." My essay is not intended to discuss the appropriateness or validity of his statement or its clarification, but to discuss the attack on Churchill from the perspectives, perceptions and practices of research misconduct as they apply to American history and American Indians. The truth about the beginning of the Churchill controversy is that it began with the right wing attack on Churchill after Churchill and others protested a Columbus Day parade in Denver in October 2004.
The Historical Context
It should be pointed out here that in 1861 Cheyenne leader Black Kettle had been invited to Fort Lyon to negotiate a peace with the the United States. He did so, ceding much of Cheyenne territory to the U.S. and agreeing to live south of Sand Creek. The Cheyenne were given a U.S. flag that they were told they should raise whenever threatened and no one would attack them. In 1864, the Reverend Colonel Chivington led 800 troops of Colorado territorial militia in an unprovoked attack on a sleeping village of mostly women and children at Sand Creek (the younger men were out hunting). The villagers raised the U.S. flag as a sign of peace, but Chivington wanted genocide, massacring the village of 53 older men and 110 women and children, mutilating the bodies of the Cheyenne villagers. They took the Cheyenne scalps and genitalia back to Denver, marching down the streets with Indian genitalia held up on sticks, celebrating their genocidal trophies and their evidence that Indians would never again be able to reproduce.
In 1864 The Rocky Mountain News, one of the Denver papers that convicted Churchill in the press and called for his termination, described the massacre of 110 women and children and 53 older men by 800 Colorado volunteers this way: “Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals, and none to exceed it in final results.... Among the killed were all the Cheyenne chiefs, Black Kettle, White Antelope, Little Robe, Left Hand, Knock Knee, One Eye, and another, name unknown. Not a single prominent man of the tribe remains, and the tribe itself is almost annihilated.... All acquitted themselves well, and Colorado soldiers have again covered themselves with glory.” History has shown the account of this massacre to be a gross case of research and journalistic misconduct.
One historian called Sand Creek the American My Lai. Former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell called Sand Creek "one of the most disgraceful moments of American history."
One of the participants in this massacre was David Nichols who was honored by the University of Colorado by having a dormitory on campus named after him. In the 1980s my daughter and other First Nations students at UC protested this name, and the name was eventually changed in 1989 to Cheyenne Arapaho Hall. This local history is not irrelevant to understanding how Colorado to understanding the protests of the Columbus Day parades in Denver, and how Colorado has dealt with Churchill his termination or extermination.
Angry over the acquittal of Churchill and the other protesters of the Columbus Day parade, the right wing searched Churchill’s writing for something with which they could destroy him. That is when they found and publicized his comment, written in 2001, about some victims of 9/11 not being totally innocent. Later they discovered that it would be difficult to fire him on the grounds of his unpopular essay, so they went after his scholarship, looking for something they could call “research misconduct.” Forty-four pages in the “official investigation” (or shall we call it an inquisition) are devoted to trying to disprove Churchill’s contention that U.S. agents deliberately gave Indians small pox invested blankets in 1837-1840, while this represents only three paragraphs in any of Churchill’s 12 books and represents less than a thousandth of one percent of the genocide inflicted on Indigenous peoples. This attack on his position is all done from Eurocentric perspectives, biases and paradigms, totally discounting Indigenous perspectives and oral traditions. Yet universities like Colorado hypocritically claim to support and cherish diversity and dissent while denying validity to non-Euroamerican perspectives and traditions.
University officials said their deliberations did not consider Churchill’s essay about the causes of the 9/11 attack in which a short phrase found in one sentence has been used to indict and convict Churchill in the press. That position is, to say the least, not credible, and is being put forth simply to position the university in the upcoming court battle. Churchill’s attorney, David Lane, says that in order to show that Churchill’s First Amendment rights were violated all he has to do is show that Churchill’s unpopular phrase in that essay was a factor in his dismissal, not the whole cause. Everyone knows that without the publicity surrounding that phrase promoted by the right wing, there would never have been any investigation of his scholarship, which in the previous 30 years the university had found exemplary and worthy of promotion and reward.
Those who deny or ignore the American Holocaust are not being investigated. The scholars and journalists who perpetuate the Eurocentric biases disguised as American history are not being investigated for research misconduct, and are not being fired from their teaching or their positions in the media. The protestations of the university about preserving academic and research integrity ring hollow. The firing of Churchill is itself a form of research misconduct and represents a clear attempt by the right wing to silence Indigenous perspectives and to deny the American Holocaust.
Gary Witherspoon is a professor of anthropology and American Indian studies at the University of Washington. Witherspoon is expanding this essay into a larger work, a version of which is available here.
The case of Professor Ward Churchill has received considerable national attention over its two-plus year run. With the next act to be played out in the courtroom, the talk shows will soon be on to other things.
But the ripple effects for higher education will be much longer lasting. The University of Colorado Board of Regents on Tuesday accepted my recommendation that Professor Churchill be dismissed from the faculty for engaging in serious, deliberate and repeated research misconduct. The reaction to the regents’ decision from the university’s constituents has been overwhelmingly positive. Yet in the higher education community across the country, things are a bit more unsettled.
There are those on one end of the spectrum who believe Churchill is free speech martyr who was persecuted because of statements that flew in the face of prevailing winds. On the other end of the spectrum are those who think he is a charlatan, selling snake oil while disguised as an academic. Perhaps the largest group is the one in the middle, which recognizes that his academic misconduct sins were egregious, but remain decidedly uncomfortable that those sins came to light after he engaged in controversial speech.
The case’s implications for academic freedom are also compelling. The term being employed, particularly by those who either support Churchill or are concerned for his free speech rights, is that the decision to fire Churchill may have a “chilling” effect on academic freedom. That’s understandable, but holding Ward Churchill up as the poster child for academic freedom runs counter to the facts.
His own writing shows us why. His essay, "About that Bering Strait Land Bridge ... Let’s Turn Those Footprints Around," which takes archaeologists to task for holding to a migration theory, he writes, "Tailoring the facts to fit one’s theory constitutes neither good science nor good journalism. Rather, it is intellectually dishonest and, when published for consumption by a mass audience, adds up to propaganda."
Three separate panels of more than 20 tenured faculty, from the University of Colorado and other universities, unanimously found that important pieces of Professor Churchill’s research and writing met his own criteria for intellectual dishonesty. The faculty members, to a person, agreed that he engaged in research misconduct and that it required serious sanction. The faculty found a pattern of serious, repeated and deliberate research misconduct that included fabrication, falsification, improper citation and plagiarism.
The tenured faculty who reached these conclusions, like all faculty, have a significant stake in academic freedom. The bedrock of any university, particularly public research universities, is academic freedom. The scholars and researchers who investigated Professor Churchill’s work understood this relation to the work they did. They have the same stake in this bedrock principle that all academicians have.
If there is any real chilling effect in this matter, it is the threat posed to academic freedom by the types of serious academic misconduct in which Churchill engaged. Academic freedom exists only because tenured faculty can be trusted to act responsibly. When Churchill breached the obligations of trust imposed upon him, responsible scholars had no choice but to act.
Still, there are those willing to give his shoddy work a free pass because his intellectual dishonesty came to light after complaints about his controversial speech. There is no doubt that Churchill drew attention to himself when writing and speaking about 9/11 victims. It is also clear that allegations of research misconduct, unrelated to his 9/11 comments, were brought to the attention of the university.
Indeed, Professor Churchill invited his readers to challenge his work. In the introduction of his 1997 collection of essays, A Little Matter of Genocide, he writes, “I do believe that when making many of the points I’ve sought to make, and with the bluntness which typically marks my work, one is well-advised to be thorough in revealing the basis on which they rest. I also believe it is a matter not just of courtesy, but of ethics, to make proper attribution to those upon whose ideas and research one relies. Most importantly, I want those who read this book to be able to interrogate what I’ve said, to challenge it and consequently to build on it.”
The ethics of proper attribution and the basis on which his work rests were what the University of Colorado investigated after learning of potential research misconduct. His courting of public controversy on one occasion does not immunize him from adhering to professional standards in all his professional work. The university had an obligation to investigate serious allegations of research misconduct. Our policy statement on research misconduct prohibits us from turning our back on such allegations. Hiding behind the First Amendment is a smokescreen aimed at distracting people from the real issue: academic integrity.
In the final analysis, the Board of Regents of the university had little choice but to dismiss him. His acts of academic fraud were numerous, serious and intentional. Professor Churchill refused to apologize or correct his errors. He did nothing to indicate he would refrain from fraudulent research in the future.
Fraudulent scholarship violates the public trust and damages the profession. Faculty integrity is the cornerstone of any great university. The quality of the faculty’s work is at the heart of everything we in higher education do. To excuse the kind of academic fraud Professor Churchill engaged in would do irreparable damage to all universities.
Hank Brown is president of the University of Colorado.
Polemics seldom age well. But when Harold Cruse published The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual during the fall of 1967, he aimed his verbal artillery in so many directions that it seems as if some of the missiles are still landing four decades later. (At the time of his death in 2005, Cruse was professor emeritus of African-American studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.)
Crisis was certainly a product of its time – a moment when the alliances of the Civil Rights movement were disintegrating fast, and arguments over the direction of African-American politics and culture filled the air. Cruse took the measure of various ideologies and found them wanting. He had no use for what he saw as the illusions of the integrationist agenda. He was a black nationalist, yet quite pointed in criticizing the influence of Marcus Garvey and other pan-Africanists from the Caribbean. It was obvious that Cruse owed a lot to Marxist theory -- but he complained about the blind spots of radicals spreading the gospel of proletarian revolution to the ghetto. At the same time, he was critical of leading figures within the African-American arts.
At just about the time Cruse was finishing work on his manuscript, the call for “Black Power” began to be heard among younger activists. But he kept a distance from that slogan, too: “In effect,” he wrote, “it covers up a defeat without having to explain either the basic reasons for it or the flaws in the original strategy; it suggests the dimensions of a future victory in the attainment of goals while, at the same time, dispelling the fears of more defeats in the pursuit of such goals.”
It was a cantankerous book, then. But there was more to it than that. In arguing with everybody, the author was also, doubtless arguing with himself -- for along the way he must have adopted at least some of the positions under attack in its pages. Rereading The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual not long ago, I came away convinced that is one of the classic works of American cultural criticism. If the author seems cranky at times ... well, so does Thorstein Veblen.
Rather than devoting this column to celebration of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual on its 40th anniversary, however, I thought it would be more interesting to discuss Cruse’s work with a young historian who is by no means uncritical of the book.
Peniel E. Joseph, associate professor of African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University, is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (Henry Holt) and the editor of The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era (Routledge), both published last year. I have not seen the latter volume, but can attest that Midnight Hour deserved being named one of the best books of 2006 by The Washington Post.
Joseph answered some questions by e-mail about Harold Cruse and his legacy. A transcript of the discussion follows.
Q:The title of Cruse's book will sound rather dated to many readers now -- and it probably already did to some readers in 1967, even. Was there anything in Cruse’s background to make him want to insist on “Negro,” rather than some other expression?
A: I think that Cruse's decision to use the term "Negro" in this instance is very purposeful and in some ways ironic. By 1967 many Black Power militants, most notably Stokely Carmichael, were urging African Americans to identify themselves as "black." Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam had been key forerunners, in the national sense, of a black consciousness movement that disparaged the term "Negro." Cruse had used the term "Afro-American" in a 1962 essay published in Studies on the Left that achieved a cult following among a certain segment of young black radicals.
But Cruse was also a highly idiosyncratic thinker and former activist who came of age during the Great Depression--World War II era. Transplanted to New York from Virginia, Cruse encountered a Harlem that, although past the prime of the New Negro heyday of the 1920s, featured street speakers keeping the embers of Garveyism alive. Local nationalists, from Carlos Cooks to Lewis Michaux, characterized African Americans as "black" or "Afro-American." Cruse did not take the explicitly nationalist route however, preferring to join the Communist Party around 1946. Yet he retained a race pride that left him unable to completely repudiate the cultural and racial consciousness of black nationalism and pan-Africanism.
The Cold War impacts Cruse, as it did others, in indelible ways. By the early 1950s Cruse had abandoned the Communist Party and Harlem for both political and professional reasons. Politically, he felt the party promised more than it could deliver for African Americans and played favorites, lionizing figures such as Paul Robeson while failing to nurture younger, lesser know types such as himself. Professionally, ties to the CP were becoming more of an albatross than an asset. Cruse, like the young Ralph Ellison, held a driving ambition to make it as a writer at all costs.
So between 1953 and 1967, Cruse is an itinerant writer, cultural and social critic, and a sort of political vagabond living in cheap flats in New York City's Lower East Side. He encounters figures such as the precocious LeRoi Jones with a mixture of bemusement and bitterness. Cruse also held enormous resentment against some of Harlem's leading black political and cultural figures. The list is too long to properly detail, but a few names should be mentioned: Lorraine Hansberry, Robeson, John Oliver Killins and members of the Harlem Writers Guild. This is as much about professional aspirations as it is about politics since, before The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual's publication, all of these figures managed to carve out better careers than Cruse.
By the early 1960s however, Cruse seemed reinvigorated enough to travel to Cuba (alongside of Robert Williams and Le Roi Jones--two figures criticized in Crisis); participate in the New York chapter of the Freedom Now Party; write several essays for small left-wing publications; and serve as a writer for the influential nationalist magazine, Liberator. In retrospect, it's unclear whether Cruse was really inspired to recommit himself to the kind of political organizing he had participated in as a young man, looking for fodder for his writing, or simply curious about the development of a new generation of activists and eager to lend his own unique insights. By the time Crisis was published, Cruse was 51 and seems to have undertaken one last political shift that found him more open to a rather conservative brand of black nationalism and unwilling to engage in the type of internationalism that characterized the essays he wrote in the early 1960s.
Thus, the term "Negro" in the book's title amounts to a pointed rejection of a style of "blackness" that Cruse castigated as being voguish, inadequate, and naïve. Scores of white critics, perhaps most notably Christopher Lasch in The New York Review of Books, would whole heartedly agree, and Cruse would be lionized as a breath of fresh air and a new intellectual star. In middle age, he became an overnight sensation.
Q:Cruse is very strongly critical of the integrationist impulse among black intellectuals. But he's also dubious about pan-Africanism, which he treats as a bad idea from the Caribbean. If you had to characterize the positive content of his thinking, would that be possible? Or is his book strictly a polemic?
A: One of the most fruitful aspects of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual resides in the fact that Cruse took black intellectuals and cultural workers and activists seriously. For him, they comprised the vanguard of efforts to transform America's democratic culture. This is especially significant since the activities and achievements of black intellectuals remains contested terrain in a society that devalues and denigrates black intellectual capacity. Cruse took the idea of black brilliance in the world of arts, letters, and politics as a give-in and attempted to chronicle why, for all of their intellectual and artistic gifts, black (at least according to him) were in worse shape in the late 1960s than they had been during the Great Depression and Second World War.
Since Cruse was very much a product of the internationalism of the post war year, it is significant that Crisis attempts to document and analyze the shift from the "Double V" heyday of the war years to the civil rights-Black Power era. Now much of this analysis is marred by polemics and ad hominem attacks, but Cruse understood that a shift had occurred and attempted to grapple substantively, if ultimately unconvincingly, with it. Cruse also grappled, although at times in a highly idiosyncratic manner, with ideas of black nationalism and integration, self-defense and non-violence, that contoured the civil rights era's heroic period. But for every nugget of insight found, it is imperative to remember that Cruse had some sort of personal and professional relationship or interaction with many of the historical and literary figures covered in the book, a fact that he steadfastly fails to divulge.
Q:What sort of influence did the book have in early days of black studies programs?
A:The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual was published in the fall of 1967. Contemporary publications by notable black figures of the time included Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton's Black Power and Martin Luther King's Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Cruse's book was published with an impact of an unexpected blockbuster, receiving generous reviews in The New York Times and, perhaps most notably, Christopher Lasch in The New York Review of Books.
The irony is that both black and white critics mistook the book for an intellectual history, rather than a sweeping polemic that drew from history and personal experiences in a highly personal and subjective manner. White critics in influential periodicals hailed Crisis as a riveting manifesto that rightfully criticized contemporary Black Power nationalists for a "more militant than thou" attitude that the mainstream quickly found alienating. Black militants, especially cultural nationalists, were impressed by Cruse's forensic critique of interracial organizing (especially the influence of white Marxists on black activism) and drawn to his suggestion that culture would prove key to any successful black revolt.
For Cruse, who was well into middle-age at the time of its publication, the book proved to be a most intoxicating victory. Made more so because he achieved a measure of the long-sought fame and success as a writer that he had always craved, in a treatise that not only settled scores against luminaries like Lorraine Hansberry and Paul Robeson, but established him as a social, political, and cultural critic par excellence (one well received by both blacks and whites, for different reasons). A professorship at Michigan soon followed and he received tenure by the late 1970s.
Cruse' impact on Black Studies was enormous in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was intensely sought out as a university speaker, mentor, and sage by a generation of young militants trying to make their way through the complex and murky haze of the recent past. For Black Studies programs the weightiness, both literally and figuratively, of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual could be used to justify the substantive importance, even existence in some instance, of rich, vibrant, and complex black intellectual production and scholarly achievement. Indeed, the tome's sheer heft, made it required reading for tens of thousands of students during this era who read it alongside of such classic texts as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth.
Q:We seem to have "anniversary fever" nowadays -- always measuring our distance from important moments some decades ago. The upheavals of 1968 will be revisited again shortly. (The '68 industry is quite well-capitalized.) But if 1967 was the year of Black Power, you'd never know that now. Why is that? Or are the commemorations just not getting publicized?
A: Black Power remains a period in postwar American history that the mainstream, with some glaring exceptions, would rather forget. 1967 is instructive on this score. That year is scarcely as well remembered as 1968, with its famous political assassinations, May Day revolts, and Tet Offensive, but perhaps is just as important. Urban rebellions in Newark and Detroit during the summer rattled the nation's and president Lyndon Johnson's composure. Black militants in Newark, most notably LeRoi Jones, used Newark's violence as a catalyst to assume political power over the city by 1970. It's important to remember that racial violence in American cities was spoken of, at least at the time, as the product of institutional racism, and not just by radicals, but by voices of liberalism such as The New York Times. 1967 is also worth remembering for Martin Luther King's public denouncement of the Vietnam War on April 4 at New York's Riverside church, exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis.
Before the King speech it was Stokely Carmichael and SNCC who represented America's most visible anti-war activists. The idea that he was following Carmichael's lead annoyed King, since he had come out (and subsequently stayed silent) against the war as early as 1965, but militants could not help but point out the sequence of events. Stokely Carmichael's political activities during 1967 are nothing short of remarkable. January found him defending legendary Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell and consorting with Black Power militants in the Bay Area. In April he headlined a huge anti-war rally in New York that featured Dr. Benjamin Spock and Martin Luther King. By May he had stepped down as SNCC chairman and vowed to return to grassroots organizing to take over Washington, D.C.
But it was his activities outside of the country that shook America to it core that year. Between July 15 and December 11, Carmichael toured the world, stopping in London, Cuba, China, Vietnam, and various parts of Africa and Europe where he forecast guerrilla struggles on the streets of America in the service of black liberation. Eldridge Cleaver famously remarked that 1968 was the "Year of the Panther," but the organization made important strides in 1967. The BPP's May 2 "invasion" of California's state capitol in Sacramento garnered the group national headlines, which was followed by an electrifying profile in the August New York Times Magazine. Huey P. Newton's arrest for murdering a Oakland police officer in October would ignite a "Free Huey" movement that would draw together disparate activists and organizations and help enshrine the group as legend.
Much of these historical events are seen as too complex, messy, and even threatening to explain, recall, or commemorate in the mainstream. What's so very extraordinary is that Cruse's work was published amidst all of these roiling events and at a time when universities were being pressured to except large numbers of non-traditional and African American college students. Hundreds of Black Student Unions, coupled with the advent of Black Studies, made the intellectual exploration of black life a vital and necessary aspect of black activism.
Of course, at the grassroots level, many activists and long-marchers from this era are well aware of the significance of these anniversaries and are passing the significance of these events to younger generations.
Q:How well has Crisis aged, in your opinion? Is its interest now mainly historical? Is it still a live influence?
A: Contemporary African American history has achieved a level of sophistication in the past four decades that is extraordinarily impressive. A new generation of scholars are actively rewriting postwar African American history. New narratives are historically contextualizing the period which Cruse analyzes and uncovering a far more complicated, less Manichaen, black political, social, and cultural spheres than Cruse imagined. New histories of Black Power, what I call "Black Power Studies," are revising standard conceptions of the era and adding texture and nuance to Cruse's overly facile portrait of black radicalism.
The Black Power Movement's relationship with civil rights comprised more than rancorous debates between black nationalists and integrationists and goes beyond confrontations between advocates of self-defense and nonviolence. Cruse's own political evolution, one that he was unable to document in an objective sense, bears witness to the interaction between militants and moderates, intellectuals and activists, and civil rights and Black Power in a way that Cruse in unable to acknowledge.
In this sense, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual is very much a product of a specific historical time, one whose age, biases, and limitations become more readily apparent as time goes by. That being said, Cruse deserves kudos for tackling such a big, ambitious subject with verve, moxie, and boldness in ways that still seem unprecedented. In many ways Cruse's tome will consistently serve as a right of passage for generations of aspiring scholars and activists seeking to make sense of the evolutions, debates, and conflicts within African American social, political, and intellectual circles between the Great Depression and Black Power eras.
Q:Well, I’m reluctant to go along with any scenario in which Cruse is just an important but misguided ancestor. Maybe the historians have surpassed him, but the cultural critics haven't, necessarily.I’m thinking of an academic conference on hip-hop a few years ago that was struck me as incredibly underwhelming at the level of analysis and argument. (It was the Authenticity Olympics, pretty much.) The qualities that make Crisis so readable after all this time -- the critical edge, the skepticism, the sense of cultural history as something to fight about rather than just to celebrate – were not much in evidence. If Cruse had been there, he would’ve cleaned everybody's clock.
A: Cruse's skepticism is to be applauded in certain instances, but it's also important to remember the many biases (for instance the book's anti-Caribbean tone) that haunt the book. There are also historical inaccuracies since Cruse, although a great appreciator of history, was not a historian. Crisis represents not so much a history than an impassioned, first hand account of the postwar era through an analysis of many events, meetings, conferences, etc. that the author participated in.
Certainly contemporary cultural critics should take note of Cruse's boldness, if not his belligerence. By 1967 it seemed that Cruse took a little too much relish in excoriating even attempts at political organizing. More eager to tell people why they were in error than to see the merit in constructive political engagement. This was a long way from the young activist who joined the CP or even the middle aged wander who visited Cuba in 1960 and was active in the Freedom Now Party in the early 1960s. Part of this may stem from political burnout, a breaking point that Ralph Ellison had reached by the 1940s.
By the late 1960s Cruse was content to serve as a sort of angry sage, telling younger folks what they were doing wrong while his contemporaries shook their heads in shock and disbelief at his newfound stature.
Its worth noting however, that none of them who could do so (figures like Julian Mayfield and John Oliver Killins and John Henrik Clarke) responded to Cruse with their own book-length manifesto (Mayfield did criticize the book in a review in the pages of Negro Digest). So a lot of this is based on how seriously do we take African American history. If we do, than we must take note of the way in which Cruse sees the period through odd, sharp angles that cut out whole swaths of history that a contemporary generation are uncovering and putting together in a more holistic manner.
In many ways Cruse was praised for his biting wit, caustic style, and ad hominem attacks than substantive historical analysis. There remains much to admire about Crisis, most notably its scope and ambition, but we must be vigilant about overreach. Christopher Lasch called the book a "monument of historical analysis," which is precisely in fact what it wasn't.
Q:The most recent edition of Crisis comes with an introduction by Stanley Crouch, who also wrote the foreword to The Essential Harold Cruse . Crouch definitely has a profile as polemicist (he’s someone the left loves to hate, and he revels in that) and his insistence on using the word “Negro” is contrarian enough. But in other ways it seems like an odd match. What do you make of the emergence of Crouch as one of Cruse’s more visible advocates?
A: Cruse, for many contemporary black intellectuals, represents the ultimate iconoclast, and thus he attracts admirers across ideological lines. In this way Cruse's willingness to cut across the grain of accepted discourse within black intellectual circles is, in some instances, similar to Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Since Cruse distanced himself from his earlier political radicalism, which covers at least two decades of his professional career, his corpus of well known works emphasize the kind of critique of black militancy that conservatives of all stripes find refreshing.
Q:Really? It's hard to imagine that many white conservatives would read Crisis and think, "Hell yeah!" Its framework is still quite Marxist, in a lot of ways. On the other hand, your comment about Cruse’s similarity to Ellison and Murray does seem very on-target – and Ellison, at least, does have some admirers on the right. (Meanwhile, Albert Murray remains criminally neglected by almost everybody.) Would you say something more about the sense in which Cruse can be called a conservative?
A: Cruse would not conform to contemporary standards of black conservatism. He was very much appealing for blacks to wield control over what he called America's cultural apparatus. His strategy for doing so however, remain frustratingly murky. Cruse rejected a facile black nationalism that he viewed as naive and insular, but at the same time promoted a robust version of black self-determination, especially over indigenous cultural political expressions.
The appeal to conservative could be found in the Crisis' criticism of black protest traditions (whether in the form of Lorraine Hansberry's writing, Paul Robeson's activism, or Robert F. Williams' militancy) as largely symbolic. Cruse was equally as harsh with contemporary Black Power militants. Cruse's discussion of the demise of the Amiri Baraka founded Black Arts Repertory Theater and School (BARTS) is especially instructive here. "The only real politics for the creative intellectual," he writes, "should be the politics of culture." He subsequently separates black intellectual work from social protests waged by civil rights activist and black nationalists.
This notion that black culture can be separated, or even should be, from bruising organic street protests is something that contemporary black conservatives would find tremendously appealing. It echoes elements of Bayard Rustin's famous notion that the movement had progressed from "protest to politics."
The relative absence of the black movement's international dimension is also important here. Surprising since Cruse was so well traveled and well read and had written incisive essays about the impact, for instance, of Cuba and African decolonization on the black movement in America. The surprisingly parochial view of racial dissent in America encourages the view that black freedom struggles are uniquely American and have no connections to global movements for decolonization and social justice and human rights. The final paragraph of Crisis argues that black Americans need to learn their historic roots in the U.S. more profoundly, which suggests Cruse's apparent fatigue with pan-Africanist and internationalist traditions that had in fact, along with Marxism, shaped his intellectual trajectory and political career.
In short Cruse's strident criticism of black nationalism, excoriation of a younger generation of militants, skepticism regarding the Cuban revolution, and insistence that African Americans' political, social, and cultural destiny was distinct from other parts of the diaspora (most notably descendants from the Caribbean) makes Crisis appealing to conservatives who have no use for, and would be offended by, the Marxist influences.
Late last year, The New York Review of Books ran a full-page advertisement fairly glowing with the warmth of the enthusiasm it projected for work of Bob Avakian. In case that name does not ring a bell, Bob Avakian is Chairman of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. Once upon a time, Avakian was a student of Stanley Fish at the University of California at Berkeley; but amidst all the excitement of the late 1960s, the poetry of Milton could not compete with the slogans coming out of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, and so a leader of the American masses emerged, even if the masses themselves didn't notice.
The NYRB ad praised Avakian’s combination of “an unsparing critique of the history and current direction of American society with a sweeping view of world history and the potential for humanity.” It called upon readers to “engage” with his work. As it happens, I was once in a punk rock band with a former Avakianite. (This was back when one of the party’s slogans was “Revolution in the ‘80s – Go For It!”) Having thus already had the opportunity to (as they say) “engage” with Avakian’s work, I will testify that he is, at the very least, prolific and capable of extensive discourse. Nearly all of his writings are based on speeches to the party, and they do go on a bit.
In any case, the content of the full-page proclamation was much less interesting, all in all, than the list of people endorsing it. Among them were a few prominent academics. Cornel West was one of them. Members of the Harvard faculty were among the signatories. Ubiquitous cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek has recently added his name to an online version. The list also includes famous entertainers such as Public Enemy rapper Chuck D and Ricky Lee Jones, the folk-rock chanteuse. (The text and the most recently updated set of signatories can now be found here.)
Without quite endorsing the RCP slogan “Mao More Than Ever,” all of them had “come away from encounters with Avakian provoked and enriched in our own thinking.” Or so the text of the ad put it.
In the weeks since it appeared, a few friends who knew of my longstanding fascination with the Chairman Bob phenomenon asked about the New York Review ad. They were surprised to see it, and wondered whether all these people had actually taken up the cause of Avakianism.
My best guess, rather, was that very few of the signatories had read much Avakian. The abundance and verbosity of his pamphlets would exceed the stamina of any but the most disciplined of revolutionary intellectuals. What probably happened, I surmised, was that party cadres had pointed out various anti-Bush statements by Avakian in order to harvest a bunch of signatures from people who were angered by the course of recent history.
At the same time, it was easy to imagine how other people would probably understand the ad. They would look at it and conclude that the signatories were, in fact, hardcore militants looking to Avakian for leadership in establishing a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.
The belief that academia contains literally tens of thousands of such people has, of course, no basis in reality. But it is evidently quite profitable. There is an audience for such claims (the rate of propagation of suckers-per-minute having intensified since P.T. Barnum’s day) and it constitutes a more robust market than the one for Marxist-Leninist pamphlets. One pictures right-wing interns stuffing envelopes with reprinted copies of the NYRB advertisement and sending it to the hinterlands – and humming “We’re in the Money” all the while.
Well, not that it will slow down the fund-raising campaign one bit, but an article that ran on Sunday in the Ideas section of The Boston Globe helps clarify the motive of some of those who lent their signatures. Mark Oppenheimer, the editor of a new journal called The New Haven Review of Books, contacted some of the professors who endorsed the ad. He reports that they were much more interested in upholding Avakian’s right to free speech than they were in the content of his revolutionary doctrine.
There also may be a little nostalgia going on. Avakian is “a living link to the '60s,” writes Oppenheimer, “an era when American campus radicalism reached its apogee of influence. And he was an outspoken atheist back in the day, too, before Christopher Hitchens and others found bestsellerdom in unbelief; one professor told me he admired Avakian’s stand against religious fundamentalism. But above all the Avakian narrative allows civil libertarians to register a vote for free speech, even if they have to ignore the fact that Avakian's speech is in no danger of being suppressed. Rightly concerned about Guantanamo and the Patriot Act, they figure that Avakian is a good proxy fight, or good enough.”
This strikes me as a judicious estimate. But while for the most part concurring with the article (for which Oppenheimer interviewed me about my own sad misadventure of trying to arrange an interview with Chairman Bob), I think there is a little more going in with that manifesto than meets the eye.
Buying a full-page in America’s premier journal of public-intellectual commentary is an expensive proposition for a small group on the far left. And it is not necessarily the most obvious use of resources for revolutionaries who have otherwise spent much of their energy trying to build “base areas” (as Maoist theory puts it) in ghetto areas.
To understand what was really happening, we might take a quick glance at what might look like a very different sort of cultural artifact. I mean the recently leaked video clip of Tom Cruise speaking about Scientology, which recently showed up on YouTube. Here’s a link, for as long as it may be good.
A couple of weeks ago, a researcher for one of the television networks asked me if I might be willing to discuss the clip on one of the prime-time news programs. As with being interviewed for the Boston Globe article, this was a delayed side-effect of having once been in a punk-rock band – for another members of the group was a Scientologist. (A career as armchair subcultural anthropologist and the loss of hearing in my right ear seem to be closely related.)
It seemed as if a much better guest for the program might be Roy Wallis, whose excellent book The Road to Total Freedom: A Sociological Analysis of Scientology was published by Columbia University Press in 1976. But Wallis is now teaching in Belfast, while I live about two blocks from one of the network’s studios. Gore Vidal is said to have remarked that one should never turn down an opportunity either to have sex or go on TV. That seems like incredibly bad advice from the standpoint of hygiene, literal or spiritual. Still, I agreed to take a look at the clip to see if there were anything interesting to say about it.
And indeed there was. The video shows the famously enthusiastic actor discussing the miraculous powers he has gained from his years in the Church. The clip also demonstrates that Cruise can speak advanced Scientology jargon with a certain fluency.
Some commentary about his performance has been remarkably off-base -- treating it simply as a kind of recruitment film starring an extremely prominent celebrity. In fact, most of what Cruse says would be utterly incomprehensible to any potential recruit. You have to know the code, the inner lingo of the movement, to understand the implications of the points he was making.
Having studied Wallis’s monograph, I was able to follow the message almost like a native speaker. And that message was aimed strictly at anyone in the Church inclined to doubt its leadership. Cruse was pretty clearly warning members that their only hope lay in the authority of its established hierarchy.
So I explained in a short memorandum for the TV people – who thanked me, then decided another talking head wasn’t required for their program, after all. Gore Vidal might be unhappy, but I was slightly relieved. (Getting the Scientologists mad at you is no picnic. We’re talking about a church for which litigation is practically a sacrament.)
With hindsight, I think the general point of my analysis also applies to that full-page ad, as well. Whatever the intention of Cornel West or Slavoj Zizek in signing the appeal from the Committee to Project and Protect the Voice of Bob Avakian, the most important audience for its message was not the public-intellectual world served by The New York Review of Books.
The force of the discourse was, in important respects, centripetal. Its real audience is the party faithful. Or rather, those supporters who, at certain moments, feel doubt about whether Chairman Bob Avakian Thought actually can change the world. (The Chairman himself thinks that failure to appreciate his contributions is a major weakness among his followers, according to recent discussion among people formerly close to the party.)
There is nothing like a full-page ad in NYRB – endorsed by celebrities, no less – to make the road forward look that much brighter for the rank-and-file. It must also lift the Chairman’s own spirits. After all, the job of providing Maoist leadership in the world’s most highly developed country, with not a peasant in sight, has to get kind of depressing, at times.