Culture Vultures

The Culture Wars Are 10 Years Old. Has the Right Won the Struggle Over P.C., Multiculturalism, and the Canon?

There was always something wrong with this line of thinking; for one thing, it's not necessarily helpful to ignore right-wing offensives on the cultural front. More important, there's a terrible asymmetry in contemporary American political life: Left-liberal politicians tend to be pretty ambivalent about the culture wars, whereas the right not only funds its culture warriors but tries to disseminate and implement their ideas.

Take the Justice Department as a case in point. When Lani Guinier was nominated to head the Civil Rights Division in 1993, right-wing culture warriors like Abigail Thernstrom and Clint Bolick went after her with the long knives, and within a matter of weeks, liberals abandoned her and Clinton withdrew her nomination altogether. When John Ashcroft was nominated to head the entire department, the culture warriors of the left went after him as best we could, but not a single conservative broke ranks. Every right-wing flack and toady, from George F. Will on down the food chain, wailed in unison that Ashcroft's critics were slandering a good religious man. And Ashcroft was confirmed.

Or take another example: In 1995, Dinesh D'Souza followed up his 1991 anti-p.c. smash, Illiberal Education, with an astonishing book titled The End of Racism, in which he proposed a theory of "rational discrimination" based on the idea that there are "civilizational differences" between black and white Americans. Then as now, D'Souza was a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and in response to his book, Glenn Loury, the conservative black economist, resigned from the AEI. How many of Loury's white colleagues followed suit? If you said "none," you win a free tour of the AEI's white wing.

None of us could see what was really going to transform higher education in the 1990s—not the advent of queer theory or the reign of dunderheaded administrative edicts, but the downsizing and outsourcing of academic labor.

I'd like to be able to say that my 1991 essay, firing back at D'Souza and company, was uniformly right about the right. I thought their campaign against liberal academics was a sham; I thought their larger agenda was to gut the public sector; I thought they were setting the terms for public "debate" in the mass media. My instincts in defending academe in 1991 were quite similar to those of Clinton's defenders in the years since: Sure, we've got our troubles, and nobody wants to applaud speech codes on campus or oral sex with interns in the White House, but look, our enemies are actually quite evil folk who stay up late at night filing their teeth and figuring out ways to make orphans and gay men with disabilities pay for tax breaks for Midland Oil and Bob Jones University. About those people my instincts were indeed right, and "but look, his enemies are even worse" wound up becoming the unofficial liberal slogan of the Clinton era. But about "political correctness" itself I was wrong in two ways.

First, in the summer of 1991 I was but a second-year assistant professor, and hadn't yet taken the full measure of how insane a place an American university can be. I didn't take seriously enough the possibility that well-intentioned if dunderheaded administrative edicts and diversity initiatives would take the form, on a handful of campuses, of kangaroo courts and show trials.

Second, and more embarrassingly, I thought at the time that the intellectual battles of the culture wars were about justice in the broadest sense—justice to minorities, justice to the complexity of the cultural history of the West. But immersed as we were in questions about gender and popular culture and postcolonialism, none of us could see what was really going to transform higher education in the 1990s—not the advent of queer theory or the reign of dunderheaded administrative edicts, but the downsizing and outsourcing of academic labor. Today, half of all college teachers are part-timers; only one-quarter enjoy the protections of tenure. Graduate students, forced into nakedly exploitative teaching arrangements, have begun to unionize, and college administrators, in reply, have begun to sound like the coal-mine-owning and red-baiting robber barons of yore.

At first, campus lefties like me wanted to see the right-wing anti-p.c. campaign as the air assault that prepared the way for on-the-ground defunding. But then an odd thing happened: Tuitions kept rising, private-university stock portfolios boomed, even state appropriations inched up—and still the campus labor force found itself part-timed, just-in-timed, and two-timed. And you know, there's just no plausible way I can blame all this on Cheney and D'Souza. American universities have thus generally become harder, not easier, for progressives to defend in the past 10 years, and p.c. has almost nothing to do with it.

The universities have nonetheless played a crucial role in shaping American self-perception. The struggles for cultural justice couldn't be contained in the campus quad and in fact were representative of larger social transformations that were eventually felt in city councils, newspaper editorials, and local school districts. But here's the most curious development of the decade: While the flashpoint issue on campus has become a nakedly economic one, pitting trade unionism against academic hierarchy and privilege, the culture wars have moved—namely, onto the national stage, where they made all the difference between Bush voters and Goreans.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest