(courtesy of Melissa Purdue and Anna Froula)
The New P.C.: Crybaby Conservatives
by Russell Jacoby
Originally published by The Nation and reposted at AlterNet
At the birth of Western culture, a teacher called Socrates was executed for filling "young people's heads with the wrong ideas." In the 20th century, clamor about subversive American professors has come in waves, cresting around World War I, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and today. The earlier assaults can be partially explained by the political situation. Authorities descended upon professors who questioned America's entry into World War I, sympathized with the new Russian Revolution or inclined toward communism during the cold war.
Today the situation is different. The fear during the cold war, however trumped up, that professors served America's enemies could claim a patina of plausibility insofar as some teachers identified themselves as communists or socialists. With communism dead, leftism moribund and liberalism wounded, the fear of international subversion no longer threatens. Even the most rabid critics do not accuse professors of being on the payroll of al Qaeda or other Islamist extremists. Moreover, conservatives command the presidency, Congress, the courts, major news outlets and the majority of corporations; they appear to have the country comfortably in their pocket. What fuels their rage, then? What fuels the persistent charges that professors are misleading the young?
A few factors might be adduced, but none are completely convincing. One is the age-old anti-intellectualism of conservatives. Conservatives distrust unregulated intellectuals. Forty years ago McCarthyism spurred Richard Hofstadter to write his classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. In addition, a basic insecurity plagues conservatives today, a fear that their reign will be short or a gnawing doubt about their legitimacy. Dissenting voices cannot be tolerated, because they imply that a conservative future may not last forever. One Noam Chomsky is one too many. Angst besets the triumphant conservatives. Those who purge Darwin from America's schools must yell in order to drown out their own misgivings, the inchoate realization that they are barking at the moon.
Today's accusations against subversive professors differ from those of the past in several respects. In a sign of the times, the test for disloyalty has shifted far toward the center. Once an unreliable professor meant an anarchist or communist; now it includes Democrats. Soon it will be anyone to the left of Attila the Hun. Second, the charges do not (so far) come from government committees investigating un-American activities but from conservative commentators and their student minions. A series of groups such as Campus Watch, Academic Bias and Students for Academic Freedom enlist students to monitor and publicize professorial conduct. Third, the new charges are advanced not against but in the name of academic freedom or a variant of it; and, in the final twist, the new conservative critics seem driven by an ethos that they have adopted from liberalism: affirmative action and a sense of victimhood, which they officially detest.