Review: The Right’s PC Frameup

Against the Current, No. 35, November/December 1991

Mike Fischer

Tenured Radicals:
How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education
By Roger Kimball
New York Harper & Row, 1990; 222 pp. $9.95/paper.

Illiberal Education:
The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus
By Dinesh D’Souza
New York The Free Press, 1991; 319 pp. $19.95/hardcover.

IN SEPTEMBER 1990, in an essay titled “Thought Police Thrive on Campus,” syndicated columnist George Will trained his guns on the right’s latest straw target: the “PC,” or “Politically Correct,” manner in which an isolated band of professors and students is purportedly holding U.S. universities hostage to its own left-wing agenda.

Decrying the “subordination of instruction to political indoctrination” that has transformed campuses into “refuges for radicals who want universities to be as thoroughly politicized as they are,” Will offered two examples.

First, he described the battle at the University of Texas to ground the mandatory first-year composition class there in discussions of racism and sexism. (See “Multiculturalism As It Really Is” by the U-T Writing Group elsewhere in this issue—ed.) Then he quoted from my description of a composition course I teach at the University of Michigan, where I use the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America to help teach argumentative writing.

Shortly thereafter, the University of Michigan English Department’s Composition Committee used Will’s column as its starting point for a discussion of whether politics should ever enter the classroom, and whether my particular class constituted “irresponsible” teaching. I was not invited to the meetings where these issues were first aired, only learning of them weeks later through the committee’s minutes.

Though I wrote an open letter to my colleagues and to the department in protest of this treatment—subsequently receiving open letters of support from both faculty members and numerous colleagues—I never received an apology.(1)

What I did receive was written acknowledgement from the department’s chair that the university had sent him two queries regarding the Will column. Though he claimed that they “were wholly unthreatening notes,” the chair’s very denial of their potentially coercive nature—.coupled with the department’s ensuing investigation of my class—raises important questions concerning both the geneology of the raging PC controversy and who its real victims actually are.(2)

I. Who’s Plotting What?

Are students on U.S. campuses from coast to coast being brainwashed by what Roger Kimball—editor of the conservative New Criterion and author of one of the right’s most influential indictments of “PC,” Tenured Radicals—refers to as a plot by “the children of the sixties” to finally “implement” their “dream of radical cultural transformation?”

Are the horror stories of leftwing intolerance and authoritarianism on campus recounted by Will, Kimball, and a dizzying array of journalists and intellectuals ranging from Marxists like Eugene Genovese to conservatives like William F. Buckley true?

Are academic standards of excellence giving ground to half-baked leftwing hobby hors& Are today’s “tenured radicals” the ringleaders of what even Genovese and liberals such as C. Vann Woodward are calling the “new McCarthyism?” Or, on the contrary, is the PC furor—very much like the McCarthyite witchhunts of the 1950—raising the spectre of a demonized left in order to implement a rightwing agenda?

My own classroom experience is not an isolated one, either at Michigan or nationally. At the University of Oregon, a law instructor opened his lecture on last Fall’s National Coming-Out Day by discussing the Supreme Court’s history of bigotry against gays and then reading a poem. The law school administration reprimanded him, demanding that he apologize to his students.

Six months later, the same university used its spanking new speech code—that bogey of the right that supposedly epitomizes leftwing efforts to control thought —to discipline an antiwar protestor who had compared a Patriot missile toadildo.(3)

In this context, if a conservative like Kimball truly believes, as he argues in Tenured Radicals, that “there has never in history been a society more open to other cultures than our own” (197), why do his and others’ vigilant efforts to protect this climate of tolerance focus more on combatting a perceived leftwing threat than they do on attacking the very real threat posed by “slave auctions” in college frat houses; declining African-American and Latino enrollment and graduation figures;(4) a rising tide of intolerance and violence on campus directed against women, people of color, and lesbians, gays and bisexuals; and the a growing number of attacks mounted against increasingly intimidated handful of “tenured radicals” and untenured lecturers and graduate students who struggle to reverse these trends?

Are Kimball & Co. helping nip a new McCarthyism” in the bud? Or are they its intellectual apologists and ideological vanguard?

II. Kimball vs. The Barbarians

Tenured Radicals provides a useful starting point for answering such questions, because its frequently sarcastic, rhetorically charged tone—coupled with both an almost blind allegiance to an abstract conceptualization of “the West” and an equally blind inability to recognize its own contradictions—makes Kimball’s moral passion play a remarkably transparent expose of the forces at work beneath the surface of Dinesh D’Souza’s infinitely more sophisticated and wide-ranging Illiberal Education.

Tenured Radicals is a 200-page jeremiad on how modem evils ranging from deconstruction and psychoanalysis to feminism and Marxism—Kimball betrays no sense of the contradictions and disagreements among them(5)—have laid waste to “traditional aesthetic values such as clarity, order, and harmony” (119). These values—what Kimball elsewhere describes as “the most elementary distinctions of taste, judgment, and value” (165)—are, he argues, “free from direct political imperatives,” and, by extension, “permanent.” (202)

Quoting Matthew Arnold, whose Culture and Anarchy was written in 1869 as a means of rescuing what Arnold designated the “best of what has been thought and said” from the purported chaos generated by democracy, Kimball explicitly identifies his definition of art with “high culture” (63). More significantly, he repeatedly identifies it with “the West,” which is not only the most “open” society in history and the guardian of “aesthetic excellence, philosophical sophistication, and historical importance” (28-29), but also, “demographics notwithstanding” (205), what defines the United States and U.S. culture.

Insisting that “education is the staunchest bulwark against the forces of disintegration we are facing” (206), Kimball suggests that “being ignorant of that [Western] culture means being ignorant of oneself” (205). While admitting that “not everyone is either interested in or capable of taking advantage of a liberal arts education conceived in this way” (204), Kimball repeatedly conflates Western culture and universal value mandates that such an education be defended anyway.

If students cease reading “as much of what has stood the test of time as one can” (203) because of the “introduction of works of popular culture into the humanities curriculum and the unending search for works by authors of the requisite sex, skin color, sexual orientation, or ethnic heritage” (201), the future will be bleak indeed. As Kimball writes in his apocalyptic conclusion:

“(W)e are now witnessing what some have called the retribalization of the world: a violent turn against Western liberalism and its tradition of rationality… the multiculturalists notwithstanding the choice facing us today is not between a ‘repressive’ Western culture and a multicultural paradise, but between culture and barbarism. Civilization is not a gift, it is an achievement—a fragile achievement that needs constantly to be shored up and defended from besiegers inside and out.” (206)

There are numerous flaws in this argument, beginning with Kimball’s remarkably simplistic definition of art as something timeless and imbued with universal value. He never defines what those values are—let alone what constitutes “excellence” or “taste”—rendering his appeal to such standards rather circular. A work is great because it is great, or, more specifically, a work is great because it is “Western.”

Kimball gets around the multicultural, heterodox nature of “the West” itself by erecting a monolithic chain of great books from Plato to the present that am, self-evidently, of timeless value But for a man who insists so passionately—and frequently—on a reverence for history and tradition, Kimball reveals an astounding ignorance of how his purportedly timeless works became so.

As Richard Brodhead demonstrates in The School of Hawthorne—a study of how literary value has been constructed with relation to U.S. literature—writers who are valued today as “great” were hardly read as recently as seventy years ago, while others who were considered “timeless” then have been forgotten.

As recently as the 1920s, writers such as Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, and Holmes were enshrined in the U.S. literary pantheon, while current canonical staples such as Dickinson, Whitman, Melville, and Poe were hardly read at all. And the lesson applies to more than U.S. literature; as Thomas M. Greene wrote in his landmark work The Light in Troy, the Graeco-Roman tradition that Kimball refers to with such mind-numbing reverence and frequency was itself a creation of the Italian Renaissance.

Kimball’s spirited defense of “the best of what has been thought and said,” then, much like that of Arnold before him, is not really about any intrinsic value in the supposedly great works—all, not coincidentally, by white men—whom Kimball reveres.

It is, rather, about a process of establishing what Stanford professor Mary Louise Pratt—referring to the famous debate two years ago about the restructuring of Stanford’s Western Civilization class—has described as “a normative referent for everyone that will nonetheless “remain the property of a small and powerful caste that is linguistically and ethnically unified.”(6)

In other words, what Kimball really means when he calls for a cultural “bulwark” against “barbarism,” “demographics notwithstanding,” is that works of literature and art upholding his view of the world as the view of the world—and his values as universal values—must be protected from the cultural and racial others at “civilization’s” gates.

When he admits that his view of culture is not for everyone —least of all the forces of barbarism he conjures up so as to exorcise—it is quite clear whom he is leaving out U.S. “demographics notwithstanding,” Kimball’s groves of academe are for whites only.

Kimball’s one acknowledgement that even his version of the humanities—rather than being timeless—does “have a political dimension, insofar as they [the humanities] rest on a belief in the value and importance of Western culture and the civilization that gave birth to it,” gives the game away. In admissions such as this one, Tenured Radicals betrays its fundamental mission: contributing to the much larger rightwing assault on all attempts to democratize the universities’ curricula and change universities’ racial and political composition.

Poised on the precipice of a century in which this country’s white population will become a minority, Kimball’s tract is primarily a homage to a past that never was. But it is also a hysterical call to arms against a present which has had the audacity to expose that past’s pretensions, and against a future in which something beside Kimball’s cherished version of “Western liberal democratic societies” (23) might be in the offing.

III. The Politics of Illiberalism

Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education—while ultimately embarked upon a similar mission—is neither obsessed with the past nor hysterical. Written with moderation, tact, and style, it also offers a number of challenging, eloquently articulated arguments in apparent defense of those demographic “others” whom Kimball is so quick to dismiss.

Reading Ililberal Education, one would never guess that D’Souza, as a founding editor of the infamous Dartmouth Review, had a hand in stealing and publishing the private correspondence of the campus gay community and writing a scurrilous attack on affirmative action in jive.

Much has been made of his past—both at Dartmouth and as a policy advisor to Ronald Reagan—by the Village Voice and the Nation. But the left has said much less about D’Souza’s actual arguments. They deserve to be read carefully and taken seriously, if for no other reason than the necessity of exposing their far more persuasive—and therefore dangerous —method of arguing for an agenda similar to Kimball’s.

Rather than formulate a defense of the “West” that ignores demographics, D’Souza treats the United States’ multicultural future as a serious issue and a genuine challenge:

“When America loses her predominantly white stamp, what impact will that have on her Western cultural traditions? On what terms will the evanescent majority and the emerging minorities, both foreign and domestic, relate to each other? How should society cope with the agenda of increasingly powerful minority groups?” (13)

Pointing out that U.S. universities are, after the Army, the most integrated sphere in U.S. life (but this must be qualified, see note 8 below), D’Souza proceeds to provide his answer, strategically laid out as a whirlwind tour of six U.S. campuses—Berkeley, Stanford, Howard, Michigan, Duke and Harvard—which, he argues, are symptomatic of various ways in which universities are failing to meet this challenge.

Throughout his account, he poses as an advocate of “minority students,” whom he claims to “especially empathize with” and for whom he professes respect and admiration because of their “strong idealism” (22-23). He is quick to attack the extreme right’s racism, and condemns the rising tide of racist incidents on campuses across the nation.

But as he makes clear from his opening account of admissions policies at Berkeley to his final castigation of Women’s Studies and African American Studies’ Departments as “institutional grievance factories” (238), he strongly disapproves of the programs emphasizing multiculturalism and diversity through which many U.S. universities are trying to redress these problems.

“It is,” he insists throughout, “in lib-end education, properly devised and understood, that minorities and indeed all students will find the means for their true and permanent emancipation.”(23.

While this all sounds innocuous enough, D’Souza’s chapter on Stanford—in addition to being woefully misinformed or intellectually dishonest or both—makes clear that his idea of a lib-end education isn’t very different from Kimball’s, all the window dressing notwithstanding. D’Souza presents proponents of Stanford’s new Cultures, Ideas, and Values class (CIV)—a revision of its former Western Civilization class—as dogmatic leftists out to trash Western civilization and thought as a whole.

Not that he risks a mindless Kimballesque defense of the West. With a deft stroke, he admits that he too can see merit in reading non-Western classics—proffering us some of the landmark texts from classical China and India, as well as the Koran, Islamic commentaries, and the great medieval philosopher Averroes.

For D’Souza, Stanford’s leftists reveal their hypocrisy—and intellectual incompetence—in rejecting these works for personal testimonies such as I … Rigoberta Menchu, the autobiography of a Quiche woman from Guatemala who was radicalized by government-sponsored oppression in the 1970s and ’80s.

Proponents of multiculturalism prefer such a work, D’Souza asserts, both because they are incapable of teaching such classics as the Upanishads and because I… Rigoberta Menchu “represents not the zenith of Third World achievement but rather caters to the ideological proclivities of American activists.” (74)

Hence not only did Stanford’s multiculturalists lead a national effort to “transform the intellectual agendas of universities into a political one” (85), but they were self-absorbed racists in the process—more concerned with finding Third World texts conforming to their own ideological proclivities than with reading and teaching truly great Third World art.

Though Latin Americans themselves, “thanks to human rights policies begun by President Carter and continued by Presidents Reagan and Bush,” “want what we [sic] have science and technology, prosperity and democracy—that is, our philosophy, our economics, our politics” (87), Third Worldists at Stanford will not face the music. Holding up an uncritical, idealized portrait of the Third World, they fail to acknowledge its racism (79) and sexism (80) and refuse to admit that Third World peoples themselves prefer George Bush’s New World Order. Even as Western Civilization fades into the sunset west of Palo Alto, its bright and shining star is rising throughout the world.

The facts, however, are not quite so melodramatic. First, as John Searle noted in a long essay on the battle at Stanford in The New York Review of Books, the West is alive and well in Stanford’s new CIV requirement. Seven of its eight tracks closely resemble the courses they replace. In the eighth, “Europe and the Americas,” the Bible, a classical Greek play, an early Christian thinker, a Renaissance dramatist, and an Enlightenment thinker are read alongside works by Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans.

As Searle himself—no friend in this piece to multiculturalism—admits, “If I were a college freshman at Stanford, I might well be tempted to take ‘Europe and the Americas.’”(7) In fact, all of Stanford’s CW classes carry forth one of D’Souza’s own three “modest proposals” laid out at the end of his book to develop a required first-year class that would ex pose students to “the basic issues of equality and human difference” through a carefully chosen set of texts which would “include non-Western classics when they address questions relevant to the subject matter.” (254)

Not only does D’Souza have his facts wrong about CIV, but he apparently has not read I … Rigoberta Meneizu, even though his entire chapter concerning Stanford—”Travels with Rigoberta”—is grounded in his attack on her account and its supposed ideological mission.

D’Souza could not have chosen a book which more flagrantly contradicts his assertion that it and books like it represent an uncritical portrayal of the Third World. Rigoberta’s account squarely faces sexism among the Quiche (14, 61); poignantly explores the ethnic tensions that exist both between Guatemala’s many indigenous peoples and between its Indians and mestizos (39-40); and vigorously condemns the machismo in Guatemala’s popular and liberation movements (220-226).

But I … Rigoberta Menchu is also an indictment of U.S. policy in places like Guatemala, where the “democracy” of which D’Souza is so enamored has killed 200,000 people since the CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. D’Souza does not mention this aspect of Rigoberta’s book, but his defense of the “democracy” North American-style that all of Latin America is hankering after suggests he wouldn’t be altogether pleased with it.

It is this side of Western Civilization which D’Souza, in his all-out attack on “Third World barbarism,” ignores. And it is in this way that testimonies like I Rigoberta Menchu pose a very real threat to the decidedly illiberal education—as well as the illiberal system it upholds—which D’Souza champions.

VI. Blaming the Victims—Again

U.S. universities’ increasingly multicultural curricula are related to the affirmative action programs which, especially in the past three years, have dramatically expanded the presence of people of color on once nearly homogenous campuses.(8)

At the University of Michigan, for example, where African-American enrollment had actually declined from 7.2% in 1970 to 5% in 1988, students spearheaded by the United Coalition Against Racism (UCAR) led protests in 1987 and 1988 against an administration which had failed to honor its 1970 promise to make African-American enrollment proportionate with their percentage of the state’s population, or 12%. UCAR won a promise from the administration to recruit more students and faculty of color.

Much of Illiberal Education is spent attacking such promises, both at Michigan and, especially, in chapters on affirmative action as applied to students at Berkeley and the faculty at Duke. “Quotas which were intended as instruments of inclusion now … function as instruments of exclusion,” D’Souza insists, as he decries a policy at Berkeley that gives preferential treatment to middle-class African Americans at the expense of still poor Vietnamese refugees (29, 35).

“Racial division,” D’Souza proceeds to assert, “is the natural consequence of principles that exalt group equality above individual justice” (51). Distinguishing later in his book between what he refers to as “old racism”—old-fashioned bigotry—and the “new racism” currently erupting on campuses across the country, D’Souza argues that the latter, while still inexcusable, is more understandable because it is based on “conclusions” rather than “prejudice” (239-240).

In other words, according to D’Souza, students of color not equipped to handle the rigorous academic environment provided by a first-rate college are brought there anyway by “preferential treatment” enrollment policies. Once there, they cannot help but fail. Stunned and increasingly insecure as they confront their own inadequacies among smarter, more confident white students, they withdraw into “ethnic enclaves” that teach them to blame everyone from their fellow white students to a white, racist administration for their failings.

Their white colleagues, while initially predisposed to treat students of color as equals, are converted into hard-core racists willing to burn African Americans in effigy and threaten them with dismemberment because the latter prove that they don’t belong and then choose not to belong. Soon thereafter, now-downtrodden students of color who had gone off to college filled with bright hopes and dreams either transfer to a school they can handle or more frequently, drop out of school altogether.

Fleshing out this scenario, D’Souza does acknowledge that one reason for many universities’ low minority retention rates is financing. And he is absolutely correct in excoriating college administrations for the blatant cynicism with which they lure students of color onto their campuses in order to “satisfy the formulas of diversity” and then do nothing to keep them (43, 136-8, 230).

But even as he gets some of the details right, D’Souza’s overall sketch is dead wrong. Blaming affirmative action for racism is tantamount to blaming a miniskirt for rape. As Stephen Steinberg has observed in a brilliant essay on racism(9), such logic not only constitutes a classic case of victim-blaming, but confuses cause and effect. Arguably, many students of color do not finish college because of racism, rather than being the cause of racism.

The “minority self-segregation” which, as another of his three proposals, D’Souza proposes banning, is itself often a response to racism, not its cause. Furthermore, it can be the difference between graduation and dropping out for many students of color. Stanford’s Ujamaa Theme House, which provides a living and studying environment highlighting the importance of Third World cultures and peoples, recently graduated 87% of its students of color—a much higher figure than the 50% national average.

D’Souza’s “new racism,” then, is not based on conclusions. It generates them, just as its identical twin, “old racism,” did. Neither can be fought unless an even greater commitment to affirmative action(10) is matched by even more courses offering books like I … Rigoberta Menchu taught by far more women and faculty of color. Despite all the revised hiring practices which D’Souza condemns, only 11.7% of all full professors are women, only 2.2% are African American.

Much of the “PC” frame-up is designed to assure that things stay this way. From Kimball’s or D’Souza’s point of view, there are already too many tenured radicals who are brainwashing students by questioning who are the “our” in D’Souza’s “our philosophy, our economics, our politics,” let alone whether any of the three are either democratic or in the best interests of most students.

Changing hiring and admissions Practices–coupled with curriculum revision and the creation of an environment intended to nurture such transformations—is antithetical to the philosophy, economics, and politics which U.S. universities have traditionally taught. In this context, it becomes easier to see both what is at stake in the current “PC” controversy and why it is long past time that the left mount a vigorous counterattack. Not only is this a battle about ideology and about how the next generation of this country’s rulers will perceive themselves and their neighbors in an increasingly multicultural society.

It is also a battle for our survival within the interstices of power where these questions are being debated and decided. Should Kimball, D’Souza and others of similar ilk get their way, the left will be shut out—censored—from that debate for refusing to toe the politically correct line on everything from demo cracy in Latin America to racism at home.

To borrow some of D’Souza’s own apocalyptic language, in that case, “the worst is yet to come.”


  1. University of Michigan English Department, Composition Committee, minutes from meetings on October 1,8, 15,22 and 29, 1990.
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  2. Robert Weisbuch to author, October 30, 1990.
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  3. See Christopher Phelps’ piece “New McCarthyism or Old? The Intellectual Farce of ‘Political Correctness,'” in the July 1991 issue of the Portland Alliance.
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  4. Whereas 34% of African American high school graduates went to college in 1976, the comparable figure today is less than 26%. Furthermore, the number of African Amen-cans and Latinos graduating from high school continues to decline. See the Chronicle of Higher Education, December 9, 1987.
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  5. Neither Kimball nor D’Souza demonstrate much understanding of the critical schools that have dominated the humanities—and particularly literature—throughout much of the twentieth century. Most mistakenly, both see deconstruction—a highly relativistic and sceptical doctrine questioning the possibility of ever determining whether anything. true—as an ally of Marxism, thereby ignoring the raging debates that have divided the two camps on questions of objectivity and objective interests. For a good overview from a Marxist perspective of this debate, see Ellen Wood’s The Retreat From Class (Verso, 1986). For a good discussion of both Kimball’s and D’Souza’s simplistic portrait of the same, see Michael Berube’s article “Public Image limited” in the June 18,1991 issue of the Villlage Voice.
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  6. See Pratt’s essay in the collection The Politics of Liberal Education, edited by Darryl L. Glass and Barbara Herrustein Smith. This was published as a special issue of the South Athinik Quarterly (Vol.89, No.1).
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  7. New York Review, December 6, 1990.
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  8. That expansion has taken place, however, in a distorted fashion. While far more people of color are entering elite universities Michigan students or junior faculty members—a disproportionate number of the students never graduate and even fewer of the faculty receive tenure. The expansion I refer to thus resembles a flashy numbers game more than a genuine structural transformation.
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  9. “A Case of Color Blindness,” New Politics Vol.2, No.3.
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  10. D’Souza’s third and by far the most interesting of his “modest proposals” concerns revising affirmative action programs along lines of class rather than race. In this way, he thunders, “no longer will a black or Hispanic doctor’s son, who has enjoyed the advantages of comfort and affluence, receive preference over the daughter of an Appalachian coal miner or a Vietnamese street vendor (2). D’Souza’s position here, echoing William Julius Wilson’s work on the “underclass,” has proven very persuasive to large parts of the left, including Eugene Genovese (writing in the New Republic),and Michael Berube (see his aforementioned piece in the Village Voice). But its failure to treat race as a separate category of oppression caricatures the most vulgarly orthodox Marxism. Why, one wonders, couldn’t affirmative action policy be extended so as to fully cover both the Hispanic doctor’s son and the coal miner’s daughter? In introducing his proposal, D’Souza argues that “affirmative action seats must necessarily be limited” (2), but he never says why.
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November-December 1991, ATC 35