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A (Mostly) Misbegotten Attempt to Take Scalia’s Measure

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Essays, Humanities, Judicial Activism, Judicial Restraint, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Politics, Scholarship on May 15, 2019 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here at Law & Liberty.

On Wednesday [editorial note: this review was published on February 11, 2019] it will be exactly three years since Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, yet his towering presence is still felt. Given the extent of his influence on legal education and his popularization of both originalism and textualism, it is no surprise to see a growing number of books and conferences addressing the importance of his legacy. One such book is The Conservative Revolution of Antonin Scalia, a collection of disparate essays edited by the political scientists David A. Schultz of Hamline University and Howard Schweber of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and published by Lexington Books.

No consensus view emerges from these wide-ranging essays on everything from Scalia’s contributions to administrative law to his Senate confirmation hearings. Nor are the essays  universally admiring. On the contrary, most of them are critical. “Was Antonin Scalia a sissy when it came to administrative law?” Schultz asks—unprofessionally, in my view. Mary Welek Atwell of Radford University scrutinizes Scalia’s opinions in cases about race and gender, highlighting his apparent “comfort” with the “patriarchal, hierarchical” elements of the Roman Catholic Church, and grandly declaring that Scalia “sympathized more with those who were trying to hold on to their privilege by excluding others than with those who sought to be included.”

Is that so? And is it so that Scalia, in the words of contributor Henry L. Chambers, Jr., of the University of Richmond School of Law, “read statutory text relatively simply”? What a relatively simple claim! Scalia’s Reading Law (2012), coauthored with Bryan Garner, outlines principles or canons for interpreting statutes and legal instruments; it has become a landmark in the field, having been cited in hundreds of cases and over a thousand law review articles in the seven years since its release. While it aims to simplify hermeneutics, providing sound methodological guidance to interpreters of legal texts, it is by no measure simple.

Scalia “might be our most Machiavellian Supreme Court justice,” the University of Wyoming law professor Stephen M. Feldman submits. “Scalia sneered, as was his wont,” he writes in an aside. Less ad hominem but equally breezy assertions by Feldman: that originalism “is most often applied in practice as a subterfuge for conservative conclusions,” and that, in any case, “Scalia’s implementation of originalism failed on multiple grounds.”

Most of the critiques in this book, in contrast to those just cited, are responsibly researched and tonally reserved. No reasonable person expects scholarly assessments of a controversial jurist’s legacy to be an exercise in hagiography. On the other hand, such assessments should avoid coming off like intemperate outbursts.

The 18 contributors come from a range of disciplines. Only three are law professors; two are professors of criminal justice; two are doctoral candidates; and one clerks for a federal judge. Equally diverse are the essays’ methodological approaches. The most distinctive belongs to Timothy R. Johnson, Ryan C. Black, and Ryan J. Owens, who in a coauthored chapter attempt to examine empirically—with graphs and figures—Scalia’s influence on the behavior of his Court colleagues during oral argument. Whether they succeed is a determination better left to experts in quantitative research.

Scalia the Liberal?

Coauthors Christopher E. Smith of Michigan State University and Charles F. Jacobs of St. Norbert College consider Scalia’s conservatism in the context of the criminal law. They do not define what they mean by “conservatism.” Before long one gathers that their understanding of it is woefully limited. They conclude, with apparent surprise, that “in nearly 1 in 6 decisions, Scalia cast his vote in support of criminal rights.” If Scalia’s method involved choosing results and then supplying reasoning to justify them, then perhaps some of his opinions regarding the Fourth Amendment might seem uncharacteristically “liberal.” Of course, Scalia’s originalism and textualism do not presuppose conclusions; they demand, instead, a rigorous process of determining the meaning and semantic context of written laws. This process may lead to “liberal” or “conservative” outcomes that do not align with a judge’s political preferences but that the words of the law necessarily require.

The process is conservative even when it yields “liberal” results.

“One might expect,” the editors say of the Smith-Jacobs chapter, “that as a political conservative Justice Scalia would have authored opinions that gave the greatest possible latitude to agents of government.” Such an obtuse claim is enough to cast doubt on Schultz and Schweber’s understanding of conservatism and, hence, of their ability to critique the claims about conservatism that one comes across throughout the book.

By contrast, the essay by Jesse Merriam of Loyola University Maryland, “Justice Scalia and the Legal Conservative Movement: An Exploration of Nino’s Neoconservatism,” stands out as historically informed on matters of conservatism—including the relationship between Scalia’s jurisprudence and the so-called conservative movement as represented by think tanks, politicos, journalists, and academics.

James Staab of the University of Central Missouri asks in the final chapter whether Antonin Scalia was a great Supreme Court justice. Staab answers no, basing his finding on seven factors:

  1. “length of service, including the production of a large body of respected judicial work”;
  2. “judicial craftsmanship, or the ability to communicate clearly and memorably in writing”;
  3. “influence, or whether the judge left an indelible mark on the law”;
  4. “judicial temperament, or the qualities of being dispassionate and even-tempered”;
  5. “impartiality, or the qualities of disinterestedness and maintaining a strict detachment from partisan activities”;
  6. “vision of the judicial function, or the proper role of judges in a constitutional democracy”; and
  7. “game changers, or whether the judge foreshadowed the future direction of the law and was on the right side of history.”

This factoring raises the expectation of a quantitative methodology, yet the chapter lacks any mathematical analysis. Regarding the first criterion, Staab simply offers several paragraphs about Scalia’s years of service and many opinions, discusses the jurist’s extrajudicial writings, and then declares: “In sum, the body of judicial work produced by Scalia is truly impressive. It is safe to say that he easily satisfies the first criteria [sic] of what constitutes a great judge.”

Regarding the second criterion, Staab mentions Scalia’s oft-celebrated writing skills and then lists some of the many memorable Scalia opinions, deducing from this evidence that “Scalia again receives the highest of remarks.” He adds that the quality of Scalia’s opinions “has sometimes been compared to those of Holmes, Cardozo, and Robert Jackson—a comparison I would agree with.” Why should Staab’s agreement or disagreement have any bearing? Where are the statistical and computational values that back up his personal judgments? Staab sounds like someone unconvincingly pretending to do quantitative research. Are his factors the best measure of greatness?

The Vagaries of Balancing Tests

What of Staab’s negative verdicts? He questions Scalia’s temperament and collegiality, pointing to his “strident dissenting opinions” and “no-holds-barred opinions.” These opinions, says Staab, “struck a partisan tone,” and the jurist’s association with the Federalist Society (gasp!) “compromised his impartiality.” Staab suggests that Scalia should have recused himself in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006) and Cheney v. United States District Court (2004). He qualifies as “unprincipled” Scalia’s opinions in the areas of the veto power, state sovereign immunity, the incorporation doctrine, regulatory takings, and affirmative action. He alleges that a “major problem for Justice Scalia’s legacy is that his originalist jurisprudence was on the wrong side of history” in the sense that several of his views did not win out. Scalia was forced to dissent in controversial cases with sweeping results for the country.

Staab’s checklist reminds me of the Scalia line about the utility of balancing tests, or the lack thereof. “The scale analogy is not really appropriate,” he wrote in Bendix Autolite Corporation v. Midwesco Enterprises(1988), “since the interests on both sides are incommensurate. It is more like judging whether a particular line is longer than a particular rock is heavy.”

Whatever criteria you use to evaluate greatness, this edition is unlikely to qualify.

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El marxismo cultural es real

In Academia, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Pedagogy, Philosophy, The Academy, Western Philosophy on May 1, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the Mises Institute. 

Samuel Moyn, un profesor de derecho de Yale, preguntórecientemente: “¿Qué es el “marxismo cultural?””. Su respuesta: “Nada de eso existe en realidad”. Moyn atribuye el término marxismo cultural a la “imaginación desenfrenada de la derecha”, afirmando que implica locas teorías de conspiración y se ha estado “filtrando durante años a través de las alcantarillas globales del odio”.

Alexander Zubatov, un abogado que escribió en Tabletrespondió que el marxismo cultural, “algo confuso y controvertido”, “ha estado en circulación durante más de cuarenta años”. Tiene, además, “usos perfectamente respetables fuera de la oscuridad, silos húmedos de la lejana derecha”. Concluyó que el marxismo cultural no es ni una “conspiración” ni una “fantasmagoría” de la mera derecha, sino un “programa intelectual coherente, una constelación de ideas peligrosas”.

En este debate, me pongo del lado de Zubatov. Este es el por qué.

A pesar de la desconcertante gama de controversias y significados que se le atribuyen, el marxismo cultural (el término y el movimiento) tiene una historia profunda y compleja en la teoría. La palabra “Teoría” (con una T mayúscula) es el encabezado general de la investigación dentro de las ramas interpretativas de las humanidades conocidas como estudios culturales y críticos, crítica literaria y teoría literaria, cada una de las cuales incluye una variedad de enfoques desde lo fenomenológico hasta el psicoanalítico. En los Estados Unidos, la Teoría se enseña y aplica comúnmente en los departamentos de inglés, aunque su influencia es perceptible en todas las humanidades.

Una breve genealogía de diferentes escuelas de Teoría, que se originó fuera de los departamentos de inglés, entre filósofos y sociólogos, por ejemplo, pero que se convirtió en parte del plan de estudios básico de los departamentos de inglés, muestra no solo que el marxismo cultural es un fenómeno identificable, sino que prolifera más allá de la academia.

Los estudiosos versados ​​en Teoría son razonablemente desconfiados de las representaciones crudas y tendenciosas de su campo. Sin embargo, estos campos conservan elementos del marxismo que, en mi opinión, requieren un mayor y sostenido escrutinio. Dadas las estimaciones de que el comunismo mató a más de 100 millones de personas, debemos discutir abierta y honestamente las corrientes del marxismo que atraviesan diferentes modos de interpretación y escuelas de pensamiento. Además, para evitar la complicidad, debemos preguntarnos si y por qué las ideas marxistas, aunque sean atenuadas, siguen motivando a los principales académicos y difundiéndose en la cultura más amplia.

Los departamentos ingleses surgieron en los Estados Unidos a fines del siglo XIX y principios del XX, lo que dio paso a estudios cada vez más profesionalizados de literatura y otras formas de expresión estética. A medida que el inglés se convirtió en una disciplina universitaria distinta con su propio plan de estudios, se alejó del estudio de la literatura británica y de las obras canónicas de la tradición occidental en la traducción, y hacia las filosofías que guían la interpretación textual.

Aunque una breve encuesta general de lo que se sigue puede no satisfacer a los que están en el campo, proporciona a los demás los antecedentes pertinentes.

La nueva crítica

La primera escuela importante que se estableció en los departamentos ingleses fue la Nueva Crítica. Su contraparte fue el formalismo ruso, caracterizado por figuras como Victor Shklovsky y Roman Jakobson, que intentaron distinguir los textos literarios de otros textos, examinando qué cualidades hacían que las representaciones escritas fueran poéticas, convincentes, originales o conmovedoras en lugar de meramente prácticas o utilitarias.

Una de esas cualidades fue la familiarización. La literatura, en otras palabras, desfamiliariza el lenguaje mediante el uso de sonido, sintaxis, metáfora, aliteración, asonancia y otros dispositivos retóricos.

La Nueva Crítica, que era principalmente pedagógica, enfatizaba la lectura atenta, manteniendo que los lectores que buscan un significado deben aislar el texto que se está considerando de las externalidades como la intención del autor, la biografía o el contexto histórico. Este método es similar al textualismo legal mediante el cual los jueces examinan estrictamente el lenguaje de un estatuto, no el historial o la intención legislativa, para interpretar la importancia o el significado de ese estatuto. Los “Nuevos Críticos” acuñaron el término “falacia intencional” para referirse a la búsqueda del significado de un texto en cualquier parte, excepto en el texto mismo. La Nueva Crítica está asociada con John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards y T. S. Eliot. En cierto modo, todas las escuelas de teoría posteriores son respuestas o reacciones a la Nueva Crítica.

Estructuralismo y postestructuralismo

El estructuralismo impregnó los círculos intelectuales franceses en los años sesenta. A través del estructuralismo, pensadores como Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva y Louis Althusser importaron la política izquierdista en el estudio de los textos literarios. El estructuralismo está arraigado en la lingüística de Ferdinand de Saussure, un lingüista suizo que observó cómo los signos lingüísticos se diferencian dentro de un sistema de lenguaje. Cuando decimos o escribimos algo, lo hacemos de acuerdo con las reglas y convenciones en las que también opera nuestra audiencia anticipada. El orden implícito que utilizamos y comunicamos es la “estructura” a la que se hace referencia en el estructuralismo.

El antropólogo francés Claude Levi-Strauss extendió las ideas de Saussure sobre el signo lingüístico a la cultura, argumentando que las creencias, los valores y los rasgos característicos de un grupo social funcionan de acuerdo con un conjunto de reglas tácitamente conocidas. Estas estructuras son el “discurso”, un término que abarca las normas culturales y no solo las prácticas lingüísticas.

Del estructuralismo y el postestructuralismo surgió el marxismo estructural, una escuela de pensamiento vinculada a Althusser que analiza el papel del estado para perpetuar el dominio de la clase dominante, los capitalistas.

El marxismo y el neomarxismo

En las décadas de 1930 y 1940, la Escuela de Frankfurt popularizó el tipo de trabajo generalmente etiquetado como “marxismo cultural”. Las figuras involucradas o asociadas con esta escuela incluyen a Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse y Walter Benjamin. Estos hombres revisaron, replantearon y extendieron el marxismo clásico al enfatizar la cultura y la ideología, incorporando ideas de campos emergentes como el psicoanálisis e investigando el auge de los medios de comunicación y la cultura de masas.

Insatisfechos con el determinismo económico y la coherencia ilusoria del materialismo histórico, y hartados por los fracasos de los gobiernos socialistas y comunistas, estos pensadores reformularon las tácticas y las premisas marxistas a su manera, sin repudiar por completo los diseños o ambiciones marxistas.

A partir de los años sesenta y setenta, académicos como Terry Eagleton y Fredric Jameson fueron explícitos al abrazar el marxismo. Rechazaron los enfoques de la Nueva Crítica que separaban la literatura de la cultura, enfatizando que la literatura reflejaba los intereses económicos y de clase, las estructuras políticas y sociales y el poder. En consecuencia, consideraron cómo los textos literarios reproducían (o socavaban) las estructuras y condiciones culturales o económicas.

Slavoj Žižek podría decirse que ha hecho más que cualquier miembro de la Escuela de Frankfurt para integrar el psicoanálisis en las variantes marxistas. “La erudición de Žižek ocupa un lugar particularmente alto dentro de la crítica cultural que busca explicar las intersecciones entre el psicoanálisis y el marxismo”, escribió la erudita Erin Labbie.1 Agregó que “los escritos prolíficos de Žižek sobre ideología, que revelan las relaciones entre psicoanálisis y marxismo, han modificó la forma en que se aborda y se logra la crítica literaria y cultural en la medida en que la mayoría de los estudiosos ya no pueden mantener firmemente la idea anterior de que los dos campos están en desacuerdo”.2 Žižek es solo uno entre muchos filósofos continentales cuyos pronósticos de marxistas y marxistas flexionados llaman la atención de los académicos estadounidenses.

Deconstrucción

Jacques Derrida es reconocido como el fundador de la deconstrucción. Tomó prestado de la teoría de Saussure que el significado de un signo lingüístico depende de su relación con su opuesto, o de las cosas de las que se diferencia. Por ejemplo, el significado de hombre depende del significado de mujer; el significado de feliz depende del significado de triste; etcétera. Así, la diferencia teórica entre dos términos opuestos, o binarios, los une en nuestra conciencia. Y un binario es privilegiado mientras que el otro es devaluado. Por ejemplo, “hermoso” es privilegiado sobre “feo” y “bueno” sobre “malo”.

El resultado es una jerarquía de binarios que son dependientes del contexto o arbitrariamente, según Derrida, y no pueden ser fijos o definidos en el tiempo y el espacio. Esto se debe a que el significado existe en un estado de flujo, y nunca se convierte en parte de un objeto o idea.

El mismo Derrida, habiendo releído el Manifiesto comunista, reconoció el avance “espectral” de un “espíritu” de Marx y el marxismo.3 Aunque la llamada “hauntología” de Derrida excluye las meta-narrativas mesiánicas del marxismo no cumplido, los comentaristas han salvado Derrida es un marxismo modificado para el clima del “capitalismo tardío” actual.

Derrida usó el término diffèrance para describir el proceso difícil de alcanzar que usan los humanos para asignar significado a signos arbitrarios, incluso si los signos (los códigos y las estructuras gramaticales de la comunicación) no pueden representar adecuadamente un objeto o idea real en la realidad. Las teorías de Derrida tuvieron un amplio impacto que le permitió a él y sus seguidores considerar los signos lingüísticos y los conceptos creados por esos signos, muchos de los cuales eran fundamentales para la tradición occidental y la cultura occidental. Por ejemplo, la crítica de Derrida al logocentrismo cuestiona casi todos los fundamentos filosóficos que se derivan de Atenas y Jerusalén.

Nuevo historicismo

El Nuevo historicismo, una empresa multifacética, está asociado con el erudito de Shakespeare Stephen Greenblatt. Observa las fuerzas y condiciones históricas con un ojo estructuralista y postestructuralista, y trata los textos literarios como productos y contribuyentes al discurso y las comunidades discursivas. Se basa en la idea de que la literatura y el arte circulan a través del discurso e informan y desestabilizan las normas e instituciones culturales.

Los nuevos historicistas exploran cómo las representaciones literarias refuerzan las estructuras de poder o trabajan contra el privilegio arraigado, extrapolando la paradoja de Foucault de que el poder crece cuando se subvierte porque es capaz de reafirmarse sobre la persona subversiva o actuar en una demostración de poder. El marxismo y el materialismo a menudo surgen cuando los nuevos historicistas buscan resaltar textos y autores (o escenas y personajes literarios) en términos de sus efectos sobre la cultura, la clase y el poder. Los nuevos historicistas se centran en figuras de clase baja o marginadas, dándoles voz o agencia y prestándoles atención atrasada. Este reclamo político, aunque pretende proporcionar un contexto, sin embargo, se arriesga a proyectar inquietudes contemporáneas en obras situadas en una cultura y momento histórico particulares.

En palabras del crítico literario Paul Cantor, “existe una diferencia entre los enfoques políticos de la literatura y los enfoques politizados, es decir, entre los que tienen en cuenta la centralidad de las preocupaciones políticas en muchos clásicos literarios y los que intentan intencionalmente reinterpretar y recrear virtualmente las obras de clase a la luz de las agendas políticas contemporáneas.”4

El marxismo cultural es real

Gran parte de la protesta sobre el marxismo cultural es indignante, desinformada y conspirativa. Parte de esto simplifica, ignora o minimiza las fisuras y tensiones entre los grupos e ideas de izquierda. El marxismo cultural no se puede reducir, por ejemplo, a “corrección política” o “política identitaria”. (Recomiendo el breve artículo de Andrew Lynn “Marxismo cultural” en la edición de otoño de 2018 de The Hedgehog Review para una crítica concisa de los tratamientos descuidados y paranoicos de marxismo cultural)

Sin embargo, el marxismo impregna la Teoría, a pesar de la competencia entre las varias ideas bajo esa etiqueta amplia. A veces este marxismo es evidente por sí mismo; en otras ocasiones, es residual e implícito. En cualquier caso, ha alcanzado un carácter distinto pero en evolución, ya que los estudiosos literarios han reelaborado el marxismo clásico para dar cuenta de la relación de la literatura y la cultura con la clase, el poder y el discurso.

El feminismo, los estudios de género, la teoría crítica de la raza, el poscolonialismo, los estudios sobre la discapacidad, estas y otras disciplinas se pasan por alto uno o más de los paradigmas teóricos que he descrito. Sin embargo, el hecho de que se guíen por el marxismo o adopte términos y conceptos marxistas no los hace prohibidos o indignos de atención.

Lo que me lleva a una advertencia: condenar estas ideas como prohibidas, ya que los peligros que corrompen a las mentes jóvenes pueden tener consecuencias imprevistas. Las derivaciones marxistas deben estudiarse para ser comprendidas de manera integral. No los elimines del currículum: contextualízalos, desafíalos y pregúntalos. No reifiques su poder ignorándolos o descuidándolos.

Las iteraciones populares del marxismo cultural se revelan en el uso casual de términos como “privilegio”, “alienación”, “mercantilización”, “fetichismo”, “materialismo”, “hegemonía” o “superestructura”. Como escribió Zubatov para Tablet, “Es un paso corto desde la “hegemonía” de Gramsci hasta los memes tóxicos ahora ubicuos de “patriarcado”, “heteronormatividad”, “supremacía blanca”, “privilegio blanco”, “fragilidad blanca” y “blancura”“. Añade “Es un paso corto de la premisa marxista y marxista cultural de que las ideas son, en su esencia, expresiones de poder para una política de identidad desenfrenada y divisoria y el juicio rutinario de las personas y sus contribuciones culturales basadas en su raza, género, sexualidad y religión.”

Mi breve resumen es simplemente la versión simplificada y aproximada de una historia mucho más grande y compleja, pero orienta a los lectores curiosos que desean aprender más sobre el marxismo cultural en los estudios literarios. Hoy en día, los departamentos de inglés sufren la falta de una misión, propósito e identidad claramente definidos. Al haber perdido el rigor en favor de la política de izquierda como su principal objetivo de estudio, los departamentos de inglés en muchas universidades están en peligro por el énfasis renovado en las habilidades prácticas y la capacitación laboral. Así como los departamentos de inglés reemplazaron a los departamentos de religión y clásicos como los principales lugares para estudiar cultura, también los departamentos o escuelas del futuro podrían reemplazar a los departamentos de inglés.

Y esos lugares pueden no tolerar las agitaciones políticas que se plantean como técnica pedagógica.

El punto, sin embargo, es que el marxismo cultural existe. Tiene una historia, seguidores, adeptos y dejó una marca perceptible en temas académicos y líneas de investigación. Moyn puede desear que desaparezca, o descartarlo como un fantasma, pero es real. Debemos conocer sus efectos en la sociedad, y en qué formas se materializa en nuestra cultura. La polémica intemperada de Moyn demuestra, de hecho, la urgencia y la importancia de examinar el marxismo cultural, en lugar de cerrar los ojos a su significado, propiedades y significado.

Nota del editor: la reciente entrevista en video de Allen Mendenhall con el Centro Martin incluye temas de este artículo.

Este artículo fue publicado originalmente por el Centro Martin.

Cultural Marxism is Real

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Philosophy on March 27, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

Samuel Moyn, a Yale law professor, recently asked, “What is ‘cultural Marxism?’” His answer: “Nothing of the kind actually exists.” Moyn attributes the term cultural Marxism to the “runaway alt-right imagination,” claiming that it implicates zany conspiracy theories and has been “percolating for years through global sewers of hatred.”

Alexander Zubatov, an attorney writing in Tabletcountered that the “somewhat unclear and contested” term cultural Marxism “has been in circulation for over forty years.” It has, moreover, “perfectly respectable uses outside the dark, dank silos of the far right.” He concluded that cultural Marxism is neither a “conspiracy” nor a “mere right-wing ‘phantasmagoria,’” but a “coherent intellectual program, a constellation of dangerous ideas.”

In this debate, I side with Zubatov.  Here’s why.

Despite the bewildering range of controversies and meanings attributed to it, cultural Marxism (the term and the movement) has a deep, complex history in Theory. The word “Theory” (with a capital T) is the general heading for research within the interpretative branches of the humanities known as cultural and critical studies, literary criticism, and literary theory—each of which includes a variety of approaches from the phenomenological to the psychoanalytic. In the United States, Theory is commonly taught and applied in English departments, although its influence is discernable throughout the humanities.

A brief genealogy of different schools of Theory—which originated outside English departments, among philosophers and sociologists for example, but became part of English departments’ core curricula—shows not only that cultural Marxism is a nameable, describable phenomenon, but also that it proliferates beyond the academy.

Scholars versed in Theory are reasonably suspicious of crude, tendentious portrayals of their field. Nevertheless, these fields retain elements of Marxism that, in my view, require heightened and sustained scrutiny. Given estimates that communism killed over 100 million people, we must openly and honestly discuss those currents of Marxism that run through different modes of interpretation and schools of thought. To avoid complicity, moreover, we must ask whether and why Marxist ideas, however attenuated, still motivate leading scholars and spread into the broader culture.

English departments sprang up in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, ushering in increasingly professionalized studies of literature and other forms of aesthetic expression. As English became a distinct university discipline with its own curriculum, it moved away from the study of British literature and canonical works of the Western tradition in translation, and toward the philosophies that guide textual interpretation.

Although a short, sweeping survey of what followed may not satisfy those in the field, it provides others with the relevant background.

The New Criticism

The first major school to establish itself in English departments was the New Criticism. Its counterpart was Russian formalism, characterized by figures like Victor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson, who attempted to distinguish literary texts from other texts, examining what qualities made written representations poetic, compelling, original, or moving rather than merely practical or utilitarian.

One such quality was defamiliarization. Literature, in other words, defamiliarizes language by using sound, syntax, metaphor, alliteration, assonance, and other rhetorical devices.

The New Criticism, which was chiefly pedagogical, emphasized close reading, maintaining that readers searching for meaning must isolate the text under consideration from externalities like authorial intent, biography, or historical context. This method is similar to legal textualism whereby judges look strictly at the language of a statute, not to legislative history or intent, to interpret the import or meaning of that statute. The New Critics coined the term “intentional fallacy” to refer to the search for the meaning of a text anywhere but in the text itself. The New Criticism is associated with John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards, and T.S. Eliot. In a way, all subsequent schools of Theory are responses or reactions to the New Criticism.

Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

Structuralism permeated French intellectual circles in the 1960s. Through structuralism, thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and Louis Althusser imported leftist politics into the study of literary texts. Structuralism is rooted in the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist who observed how linguistic signs become differentiated within a system of language. When we say or write something, we do it according to rules and conventions in which our anticipated audience also operates. The implied order we use and communicate in is the “structure” referred to in structuralism.

The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss extended Saussure’s ideas about the linguistic sign to culture, arguing that the beliefs, values, and characteristic features of a social group function according to a set of tacitly known rules. These structures are “discourse,” a term that encompasses cultural norms and not just language practices.

Out of structuralism and post-structuralism emerged Structural Marxism, a school of thought linked to Althusser that analyzes the role of the state in perpetuating the dominance of the ruling class, the capitalists.

Marxism and Neo-Marxism

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Frankfurt School popularized the type of work usually labeled as “cultural Marxism.” Figures involved or associated with this school include Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin. These men revised, repurposed, and extended classical Marxism by emphasizing culture and ideology, incorporating insights from emerging fields such as psychoanalysis, and researching the rise of mass media and mass culture.

Dissatisfied with economic determinism and the illusory coherence of historical materialism—and jaded by the failures of socialist and communist governments—these thinkers retooled Marxist tactics and premises in their own ways without entirely repudiating Marxist designs or ambitions.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, scholars like Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson were explicit in embracing Marxism. They rejected the New Critical approaches that divorced literature from culture, stressing that literature reflected class and economic interest, social and political structures, and power. Accordingly, they considered how literary texts reproduced (or undermined) cultural or economic structures and conditions.

Slavoj Žižek arguably has done more than any member of the Frankfurt School to integrate psychoanalysis into Marxist variants. “Žižek’s scholarship holds a particularly high place within cultural criticism that seeks to account for the intersections between psychoanalysis and Marxism,” wrote the scholar Erin Labbie.[1] She added, “Žižek’s prolific writings about ideology, revealing the relationships between psychoanalysis and Marxism, have altered the way in which literary and cultural criticism is approached and accomplished to the extent that most scholars can no longer hold tightly to the former notion that the two fields are at odds.”[2] Žižek is just one among many continental philosophers whose Marxist and Marxist-inflected prognostications command the attention of American academics. 

Deconstruction

Jacques Derrida is recognized as the founder of deconstruction. He borrowed from Saussure’s theory that the meaning of a linguistic sign depends on its relation to its opposite, or to things from which it differs. For instance, the meaning of male depends on the meaning of female; the meaning of happy depends on the meaning of sad; and so forth. Thus, the theoretical difference between two opposing terms, or binaries, unites them in our consciousness. And one binary is privileged while the other is devalued. For example, “beautiful” is privileged over “ugly,” and “good” over “bad.”

The result is a hierarchy of binaries that are contextually or arbitrarily dependent, according to Derrida, and cannot be fixed or definite across time and space. That is because meaning exists in a state of flux, never becoming part of an object or idea.

Derrida himself, having re-read The Communist Manifesto, recognized the “spectral” furtherance of a “spirit” of Marx and Marxism.[3] Although Derrida’s so-called “hauntology” precludes the messianic meta-narratives of unfulfilled Marxism, commentators have salvaged from Derrida a modified Marxism for the climate of today’s “late capitalism.”

Derrida used the term diffèrance to describe the elusive process humans use to attach meaning to arbitrary signs, even if signs—the codes and grammatical structures of communication—cannot adequately represent an actual object or idea in reality. Derrida’s theories had a broad impact that enabled him and his followers to consider linguistic signs and the concepts created by those signs, many of which were central to the Western tradition and Western culture. For example, Derrida’s critique of logocentrism contests nearly all philosophical foundations deriving from Athens and Jerusalem. 

New Historicism

New Historicism, a multifaceted enterprise, is associated with Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt. It looks at historical forces and conditions with a structuralist and post-structuralist eye, treating literary texts as both products of and contributors to discourse and discursive communities. It is founded on the idea that literature and art circulate through discourse and inform and destabilize cultural norms and institutions.

New historicists explore how literary representations reinforce power structures or work against entrenched privilege, extrapolating from Foucault’s paradox that power grows when it is subverted because it is able to reassert itself over the subversive person or act in a show of power. Marxism and materialism often surface when new historicists seek to highlight texts and authors (or literary scenes and characters) in terms of their effects on culture, class, and power. New historicists focus on low-class or marginalized figures, supplying them with a voice or agency and giving them overdue attention. This political reclamation, while purporting to provide context, nevertheless risks projecting contemporary concerns onto works that are situated in a particular culture and historical moment.

In the words of literary critic Paul Cantor, “There is a difference between political approaches to literature and politicized approaches, that is, between those that rightly take into account the centrality of political concerns in many literary classics and those that willfully seek to reinterpret and virtually recreate class works in light of contemporary political agendas.”[4]

Cultural Marxism Is Real

Much of the outcry about cultural Marxism is outrageous, uninformed, and conspiratorial. Some of it simplifies, ignores, or downplays the fissures and tensions among leftist groups and ideas. Cultural Marxism cannot be reduced, for instance, to “political correctness” or “identity politics.” (I recommend Andrew Lynn’s short piece “Cultural Marxism” in the Fall 2018 issue of The Hedgehog Review for a concise critique of sloppy and paranoid treatments of cultural Marxism.)

Nevertheless, Marxism pervades Theory, despite the competition among the several ideas under that broad label. Sometimes this Marxism is self-evident; at other times, it’s residual and implied. At any rate, it has attained a distinct but evolving character as literary scholars have reworked classical Marxism to account for the relation of literature and culture to class, power, and discourse.

Feminism, gender studies, critical race theory, post-colonialism, disability studies—these and other disciplines routinely get pulled through one or more of the theoretical paradigms I’ve outlined. The fact that they’re guided by Marxism or adopt Marxist terms and concepts, however, does not make them off-limits or unworthy of attention.

Which brings me to a warning: Condemning these ideas as forbidden, as dangers that corrupt young minds, might have unintended consequences. Marxist spinoffs must be studied to be comprehensively understood. Don’t remove them from the curriculum: contextualize them, challenge them, and question them. Don’t reify their power by ignoring or neglecting them.

Popular iterations of cultural Marxism reveal themselves in the casual use of terms like “privilege,” “alienation,” “commodification,” “fetishism,” “materialism,” “hegemony,” or “superstructure.” As Zubatov wrote for Tablet, “It is a short step from Gramsci’s ‘hegemony’ to the now-ubiquitous toxic memes of ‘patriarchy,’ ‘heteronormativity,’ ‘white supremacy,’ ‘white privilege,’ ‘white fragility,’ ‘and whiteness.’” He adds, “It is a short step from the Marxist and cultural Marxist premise that ideas are, at their core, expressions of power to rampant, divisive identity politics and the routine judging of people and their cultural contributions based on their race, gender, sexuality and religion.”

My brief summary is merely the simplified, approximate version of a much larger and more complex story, but it orients curious readers who wish to learn more about cultural Marxism in literary studies. Today, English departments suffer from the lack of a clearly defined mission, purpose, and identity. Having lost rigor in favor of leftist politics as their chief end of study, English departments at many universities are jeopardized by the renewed emphasis on practical skills and jobs training. Just as English departments replaced religion and classics departments as the principal places to study culture, so too could future departments or schools replace English departments.

And those places may not tolerate political agitations posturing as pedagogical technique.

The point, however, is that cultural Marxism exists. It has a history, followers, adherents, and left a perceptible mark on academic subjects and lines of inquiry. Moyn may wish it out of existence, or dismiss it as a bogeyman, but it is real. We must know its effects on society, and in what forms it materializes in our culture. Moyn’s intemperate polemic demonstrates, in fact, the urgency and importance of examining cultural Marxism, rather than closing our eyes to its meaning, properties, and significance.

 

[1] Erin F. Labbie, “Žižek Avec Lacan: Splitting the Dialectics of Desire,” Slovene Studies, Vol. 25 (2003), p. 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (Peggy Kamuf, trans.) (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), p. 3-4.

[4] Paul Cantor, “Shakespeare—‘For all time’?” The Public Interest, Issue 110 (1993), p. 35.

Students, Keep an Open Mind and Humble Heart in College

In Academia, Communication, Humanities, Pedagogy, Teaching on January 2, 2019 at 6:45 am

What the new Carnegie classifications mean for Alabama universities

In Academia, Scholarship, The Academy on December 19, 2018 at 6:45 am

This article originally appeared here in the Alabama Political Reporter.

The new Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education is out. Once operated by the Carnegie Foundation, the so-called “Carnegie classifications” are now run by the School of Education at Indiana University.

The classifications are by university type or category: doctoral universities, master’s colleges and universities, baccalaureate colleges, baccalaureate / associate colleges, associate’s colleges, special focus institutions, and tribal universities. When you hear people refer to the coveted R-1 status, they’re referring to a sub-classification within the “doctoral universities” category, which until this year trifurcated into “highest research activity” (R-1), “higher research activity” (R-2), and “moderate research activity” (R-3).

Under this taxonomy, Auburn, Alabama, UAB, and UAH were classified as “Doctoral Universities,” whereas Troy, Samford, Faulkner, Montevallo, and Alabama State were classified as “Master’s Colleges & Universities.” Huntingdon, Stillman, Tuskegee, and Talladega were designated “Baccalaureate Colleges.”

The many universities in Alabama fall into different classifications.  I have mentioned only a few universities not to suggest favor or quality, but to illustrate the spectrum of classification possibilities.

Not long ago, I wrote that “Carnegie should drop the phrases ‘highest research activity,’ higher research activity,’ and ‘moderate research activity’ that accompany the R-1, R-2, and R-3 label because they are misleading: the Carnegie rankings do not measure research activity but research expenditure.” Carnegie has corrected this flaw to some extent, relabeling its R-1 and R-2 categories as “Very high research activity” and “High research activity,” respectively—thereby eliminating the “er” and “est” suffixes (in “higher” and “highest”) that indicated the comparative and superlative degree (i.e., that made certain universities sound better than others).

So where do Alabama universities fall in the new 2018 classifications?  

Auburn, Alabama, and UAB are the only Alabama universities in the R-1 category. UAH is an R-2. Troy, Faulkner, Montevallo, and Alabama State remain “Master’s Colleges & Universities.” Tuskegee entered that category. Samford is now classified under the heading “Doctoral / Professional Universities” that did not exist in earlier classifications. This category accounts for professional-practice degrees like juris doctorates or medical degrees.

Huntington, Stillman, and Talladega remain “Baccalaureate Colleges.”

If you’re curious about the classification of your alma mater or favorite Alabama university, you can search the listings here.

It would be a mistake to treat these classifications as a hierarchal ranking of quality.  They are, rather, descriptive differentiations that inform the public about the size and spending of universities. The only category in which universities receive something like a vertical ranking is “Doctoral Universities,” which tier universities according to their alleged “research activity.”

Eric Kelderman points out that “critics wonder whether going for more research money and a higher Carnegie classification really has more to do with elevating institutional image, and comes at the expense of academic quality—particularly for undergraduates.” This is a profound concern.

The Carnegie classifications could incentivize malinvestment in doctoral degrees and number of faculty members. The job market for humanities faculty is shrinking while the number of humanities doctorates is rising, but to achieve their desired Carnegie classifications, universities continue to churn out humanities Ph.Ds. who have diminishing chances of landing tenure-track positions.

The Carnegie classifications don’t measure research quality, either. One university could spend millions on research with negligible outcomes while another could spend little on research yet yield high-quality, groundbreaking scholarship.

The Carnegie classifications are not perfect, but they command attention among administrators in higher education and can involve public funds. For that reason alone, anyone who has a stake or interest in a university in Alabama should pay attention too.

John William Corrington on Gnosticism and Modern Thought

In Academia, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy on December 12, 2018 at 6:45 am

Corrington delivered “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a lecture at a conference on Gnosticism (“Gnosticism and Modernity”) held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978. The original version of this essay, located in the archives at Centenary College, consists of a typed document with handwritten pages at the end. An edited version of this essay appears in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the book-cover image below.

Corrington opens the essay with a reference to Nick Adams, a character from a short story by Ernest Hemingway who has established for himself an alternate, deformed sense of reality—a Second Reality—whereby he orders his experience. Corrington likens this Second Reality to the structure of consciousness accepted and propagated by Gnosticism. Corrington argues that the Gnostic acceptance of a false reality brought about an embrace of magic and fantasy, both of which the Gnostics used to order their social and political experience.

This perceived form of order is, in fact, disorder. Gnosticism is manifest in modern political movements, Corrington suggests, and it renews and reuses certain symbols to describe the nature of the world. It premises itself, moreover, on assumptions about the divine ability of man to achieve a unified, monistic, salvational telos on earth.

Gnosticism, which is part of an irrepressible drive for the divine that is common to each psyche, has a coherent ideational, narrative structure that makes its symbology appealing and plausible. Gnosticism is a symptom of the desire to achieve the symbolic return to the womb, a representation of paradise in which unity and perfection and order are attained. The Gnostic thus seeks to realize in the concrete world, by way of magic and other breaks from reality, the supposedly ultimate and eternal state in which pure, transcendent unity and monism are instantiated.

Corrington sees Gnosticism in the scientism of the modern era. If metaxy represents the proper understanding of the place of man and the divine on earth, the Second Reality, which the Gnostic chooses over metaxy, is a distorted teleological worldview. Corrington submits that more would be known about modern Gnostic tendencies in the form of ideology if there were not a breakdown of the disciplines into such compartments as history, science, political science, theology, psychology, and so on.

John William Corrington on the Structure of Gnostic Consciousness

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 5, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington wrote the essay “The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” around the time he delivered his paper “Gnosticism and Modern Thought: A Way You’ll Never Be” at a conference titled “Gnosticism and Modernity,” held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” developed out “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a contribution that Corrington prepared for an edition that he and Richard Bishirjian were planning to publish after the Vanderbilt conference. The edition was never published because, according to Bishirjian, some of the contributors did not want to be associated with Mel Bradford, who was contributing a chapter to the book.

Corrington was involved in organizing the 1978 conference with Bishirjian and Eric Voegelin. Bishirjian would later relate that Voegelin considered Corrington’s paper to be the best that weekend. Among those participating in the conference was the literary critic Cleanth Brooks. Ellis Sandoz and Mel Bradford were also in attendance; Bradford delivered a paper and Sandoz moderated a panel.

“The Structure of  Gnostic Consciousness” in some ways summarizes Corrington’s philosophical interpretations of Gnosticism, political order, consciousness, myth, symbolism, the psyche, and knowledge. Corrington criticizes Gnosticism for failing to deal with reality as it is constituted in consciousness. The collapse of the Gnostic understanding of reality leads to disorder and confusion and the embrace of such things as magic that are at odds with a symbolic order emanating from a sound understanding of reality apprehended through consciousness. The Gnostic failure to comprehend reality generates delusional, ahistorical assumptions about the divinity of man and the ability of man to bring about a heaven on earth within history. Marxism is an example of a type of modern thinking that displays Gnostic elements.

The Gnostics felt alienated by and disenchanted with the cosmos as it exists in reality; they hated the real cosmos and remade it in the image of distorted, mythopoetic concepts whose symbology of disorder is mistaken for order. To achieve gnosis, or knowledge, is actually to accept a wrong and archaic mode of mythopoetic thought whereby magic is possible rather than beyond the realm of reality. This form of gnosis is attributable to Simon the Sorcerer or Simon the Magician, the Gnostic leader who is recounted briefly in the canonical Book of Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.

Corrington discusses the work of the twelfth century mystic Joachim of Fiore, who exposited a millenarian view of history that influenced modern symbolic systems and consciousness which, according to Corrington, represent a divorce from earlier types of mythopoetic thinking. Joachim of Fiore rearticulated a Gnostic vision of earth and the cosmos, projecting eschatological salvation onto the concrete activities in which we are immersed and seeking to realize a heaven on earth within history. His notion of consciousness rendered a conceptual end to history, a fantasy in which the real is lost to a deformed system of symbolism whereby the natural desires of the psyche are satisfied by a false eschatology.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

Focus on Reining in the American Bar Association

In Academia, higher education, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Politics, university on December 3, 2018 at 9:25 am

This post originally appeared here at the blog of the National Association of Scholars.

What the 2018 Election Means for Higher Education

When the 116th Congress is seated in January, political control will be divided, with Democrats holding a majority in the House and Republicans in the Senate. What does this mean for higher education? We asked a few NAS members to weigh in.

What does the 2018 election portend for higher education?  The question might be reframed this way: having lost their majority in the House of Representatives, what can Republican lawmakers expect to accomplish in the field of higher education between 2018 and 2020? The answer, in short, is “not much.”  So long, for now, to the PROSPER Act and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Perhaps with some experience in Congress, however, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will learn what makes up our three branches of government—a minor gain for education in this country, but a gain nonetheless.

One promising development involves the Department of Education’s proposed Title IX guidelines that would amend rules regarding sexual-assault adjudications on college campuses to restore certain due-process rights of the accused. These guidelines have now entered a 60-day period of public comment; if they are adopted, they will go into effect in 2020.

Will Betsy DeVos remain the Secretary of the Department of Education through 2020?  Given the number of dismissals and resignations among President Donald Trump’s political appointees, the question is worth asking.  And if DeVos is out, who is in?  President Trump reportedly offered the job to Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, before approaching DeVos.  Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, was allegedly in the running as well.  But would leaders of this stature and reputation give up the success they enjoy at their present institutions to take a position they might hold for no more than a year?  Not likely.

If I had one suggestion for the Department of Education going forward, it would be to strip the American Bar Association of its accreditation authority over law schools, leaving state supreme courts and state bar associations to determine whether graduates of any given law school may sit for the bar examination in their state. This move would require pressure from law schools, state legislators, and state supreme courts. It could unite conservatives and progressives in common cause. As I have stated elsewhere, “In this period of political rancor, reining in the ABA should appeal to both the Left and the Right, the former on grounds of racial diversity and fundamental fairness and the latter on grounds of decentralization and economic freedom.” There’s much more to say about this issue (see, e.g., here). My hope is that it becomes part of the national conversation.

John William Corrington on a Rebirth of Philosophical Thought

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Southern History, Writing on November 21, 2018 at 6:45 am

“A Rebirth of Philosophical Thought” is an essay by John William Corrington that appeared in The Southern Review in 1984. It opens by discussing the connection between Louisiana State University and Eric Voegelin and addresses the efforts of Voegelin and Ellis Sandoz to bring about a “rebirth” in philosophical thought, namely in premodern, mythopoetic forms of philosophizing.

Corrington calls Voegelin’s thought “an argument directed to the reader as spoudaios, the mature human being who, if he is capable of theoria, self-reflection, will be able to reconstitute in his own psyche the substance of what Voegelin has experienced in recollection from a past rendered opaque for most of us by some five hundred years of cultural destruction.”

For both Voegelin and Corrington, Nazism, Marxism, fascism, communism, and other totalizing ideologies of the twentieth century were the result of disordered philosophy and the divorce of modern thinking from its premodern antecedents for which humans had an innate longing, but from which they were alienated by modernity.

“A Rebirth of Philosophical Thought” provides helpful summaries of Voegelin’s most definitive theories, including his belief that modern disorder reveals symptoms of latent Gnosticism that has undergone dramatic but gradual change in light of the rise of Pauline Christianity with its various Greek influences.

“A Rebirth of Philosophical Thought” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

Review of Amy Chua’s Political Tribes

In Academia, America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Politics, Scholarship on November 14, 2018 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared in Academic Questions. 

Amy Chua, known both affectionately and derogatively as “Tiger Mom” after her highly acclaimed Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011), is a law professor at Yale Law School and an expert on globalization and international business transactions. She has the impeccable credentials of the typical law professor: Harvard University, Harvard Law School, clerkship with a federal appellate judge, and private practice experience at a Wall Street law firm. Her first book, World On Fire, coined the term “market-dominant minorities” to refer to “ethnic minorities who, for widely varying reasons, tend under market conditions to dominate economically, often to a startling extent, the ‘indigenous’ majorities around them.”[1] Certain minority populations, this theory runs, exert disproportionate control over their regional economy, fomenting in the process group backlash, resentment, and tribalism among those impoverished majorities who feel disenfranchised or marginalized.

The theme of market-dominant minorities underlies Chua’s latest book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, which examines domestic identity politics and the effects of foreign identity politics on U.S. foreign policy. Chua’s focus on tribalism, that instinctual tendency of humans to associate around shared norms, values, histories, customs, and traditions, holds together what feels like two different arguments: the one about culture at home and the other about foreign policy.

The less original of the two involves foreign policy. Five of Chua’s eight chapters can be reasonably reduced to a simple conclusion: American military intervention and capitalism did not succeed in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, and elsewhere because they were predicated on ideals that did not square with local, on-the-ground realities. In short, American values could not be universalized; presuming their viability in complex ethnic or tribal conflicts abroad led to disastrous consequences. Although she doesn’t cite him, her theme seems Hayekian: faraway experts cannot rationally design workable systems for the particular circumstances that are intelligible only to those with native knowledge.

Chua’s account of domestic tribalism and identity politics, on the other hand, is premised on the claim that America, historically, has been a “super-group.” A super-group is characterized by membership that “is open to individuals from all different backgrounds—ethnic, religious, racial, cultural.” Moreover, “a super-group does not require its members to shed or suppress their subgroup identities.” Rather, “it allows those subgroup identities to thrive, even as individuals are bound together by a strong, overarching collective identity” (12).

Tribalism, Chua submits, is spreading throughout the United States, dividing people by racial and class identities. When people identify with and as groups, she argues, they see themselves as victims and respond to perceived threats by retreating into insularity, defensiveness, and punitiveness. Elites, as a tribe, disdain “the provincial, the plebian, [and] the patriotic.” By contrast, “many ordinary Americans have come to view the elite as a distant minority controlling the levers of power from afar, ignorant about and uninterested in ‘real’ Americans” (6-7).

Chua alleges that the United States has split into the “haves” and “have-nots,” recognizable categories that are nevertheless crude. Although she describes several examples of groups that fall within these categories, her central concern is the difference between the progressive, elite, activist haves and the populist, patriotic have nots. The former purport to speak for marginalized, underclass groups without actually including those groups as members. The latter embraces the prosperity gospel and watches NASCAR and WWE. The haves and have nots, in this cartoonish illustration, represent “America’s two white tribes,” which have, she believes, turned against each other.

Chua seems correct about the alienation of white America in light of rapidly changing demographics and cultural norms. “For tens of millions of white Americans today,” she says, “mainstream popular culture displays an un-Christian, minority-glorifying, LGBTQ America they can’t and don’t want to recognize as their country—an America that seems to exclude them, to treat them as the enemy” (173). Yet Chua is off-base in assuming that the United States is or ever was a super-group, let alone “the only [super-group] among the major powers of the world.” She states: “We have forged a national identity that transcends tribal politics—an identity that does not belong to any subgroup, that is strong and capacious enough to hold together an incredibly diverse population, making us all American” (166). Her fear is that tribalism will cause America to lose “who we are.”

But who are “we”? Citizens of the United States? People who live within the territorial boundaries of the United States? People whose ancestors came from—where? She never clarifies. Are “we” unifying or coming apart the more diverse we become in terms of culture, religion, race, national origin, and so forth? Is it really an identity that holds us together? What about our Constitution, which, in the words of Albert Jay Nock, “recognizes no political boundaries, no distinctions of race or nation” in that “our allegiance to it takes precedence over every local or personal interest.”[2]

The fact is that America—both the idea and the geographical territory—has never truly been open to the kind of all-inclusive, harmonious diversity that Chua celebrates. The growing cultural chasm between New England and the South during the eighteenth century does not seem to have transcended tribal politics. The economy of the yeoman farmer and eventually the plantation system with its chattel slavery in the nineteenth-century agricultural south stood in stark contrast to the busy industry of New England. During the Civil War, southerners in the Confederate States of America would not have identified as American while retaining a “sub-group” identity.

There are many Americas. The history of the United States consists of numerous conflicts over which and whose version of America should prevail. It’s true, of course, that the United States has enjoyed, to some extent, an “ethnicity-transcending national identity and . . . unusual success in assimilating people from diverse origins,” at least if the total number of immigrants and the fact that many of them do feel part of a larger America are any indication. But the existence of the National Origins Formula, in effect from 1921 to 1965, and the immigrant exclusion laws (e.g., the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) suggest that the United States has, at times, been at least equally committed to keeping certain immigrants out of the country.

Treatment of immigrants in the United States has differed in kind and degree from region to region, city to city, and decade to decade. Thus, to purport that America has maintained some uniform and constant attitude towards immigrants, immigration, cultural multiplicity, ethnic minorities, and religious variety is mistaken. The United States may have been comparatively better than other nations at instituting welcoming, tolerant laws and policies regarding immigrants, but it has, for better or worse, always been tribal. In other words, tribalism in this country is not a new problem necessitating sudden panic.

Chua seems to recognize this weakness in her case, acknowledging that “American politics have always been identity politics.” She adds: “If we define ‘identity politics broadly, to include cultural and social movements based on group identities, then slavery and Jim Crow were forms of identity politics for white Americans, just as the suffragette movement at the turn of the twentieth century was for women.” If that’s true, then what’s so dangerously different now? How could she imply that things have gotten worse than they were during the Jim Crow Era? Her response: “[A]t different times in the past, both the American Left and the American Right have stood for group-transcending values. Neither does today” (22).

One problem with this blanket assertion is what it doesn’t say, namely that those group-transcending values that have existed in certain periods were never identical or homogenous across the United States, never part of a consistent narrative with which large swaths of the American population would agree. The imaginary utopian super-group America that Chua promotes and envisions is the product of myth. She recalls the airy, exhilarating rhetoric of the honorable St. Jean de Crèvecœur, a French liberal aristocrat enthused by the democratic possibility inspired by the New World. Yet Crèvecœur’s sentimentality was time bound, reflecting the Enlightenment excitement and optimistic mood out of which sprang the myth of the American Dream. The United States, however, has never been “a group in which membership is open to individuals of any background but that at the same time binds its members together with a strong, overarching, group-transcending collective identity.”

Myths express narrative truths about ourselves that we tell ourselves and others. The population of the United States has grown steadily and rapidly since the Founding era due to immigration, among other factors. Chua asserts that, “[o]ver the centuries, through the alchemy of markets, democracy, intermarriage, and individualism, America has been uniquely successful in attracting and assimilating diverse populations,” and that “the United States has always been one of the most ethnically and religiously open countries in the world.” She’s accurate by the measure of overall immigrant population and by the nature of our immigration laws in some respects during some periods. To be uniquely successful, however, is not to be fully or even consistently successful.

Perhaps the most unifying idea behind America, the sentiment that more than others achieved national solidarity, involved antimonarchy; for to become American has not required proof of bloodline, feudal hierarchy, or title. Still, for most of our nation’s history, immigration has originated from European nations, where monarchy was slow to dissolve and still exists in residual forms. And if you wanted to climb the social ladder, it didn’t hurt to belong to certain families: the Adamses, the Quincys, the Appletons, the Harrisons, the Cabots, the Lodges, the Roosevelts, the Holmeses, the Thayers, the Coolidges, the Rockefellers, the Peabodys, the Kennedys, the Bushes. America has lacked kings and queens, but it has erected de facto aristocracies.

The linguistic history of the United States might lend substance to Chua’s thesis about anti-tribalism and the possibility of immigrant incorporation into American civic life. Early America was a polyglot society, but the United States did not become a polylingual nation. In the contest for primacy among native dialects—Spanish in Florida and the southwest, French in Louisiana, Dutch in New York, German in Pennsylvania, and the multiple languages of immigrants from China or Japan, Italy or South America—English won out as the common tongue. Yet Chua isn’t talking about language when she extols America the super-group; she ignores arguably the most important corroborating evidence that supports her premise.

Chua sounds, in her anti-tribalism, more like a sanctimonious Barack Obama than our Founding Fathers. Obama’s 2016 speech to the Democratic National convention cast then-candidate Donald Trump, and by implication his supporters, as un-American. “[T]hat is not the America I know,” Obama said of Trump’s speech to the Republican National Convention the week before.[3] He continued:

 

The America I know is decent and generous . . . I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together—black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young, old; gay, straight; men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love. That’s the America I know![4]

 

This America that Obama knows was not known by George Washington, John Adams, or Thomas Jefferson. But what of Hamilton, the musical-inspiring “immigrant” from the British West Indies, who rose through the military ranks in service to Washington, eventually becoming a prominent Founding Father? He asserted that

 

foreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners . . . The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities.[5]

 

Hamilton’s conclusion? “The United States has already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass; it has served very much to divide the community and to distract our councils, by promoting in different classes different predilections in favor of particular foreign nations, and antipathies against others.”[6] So Hamilton was a tribalist and nativist, after all.

What of the enlightened, homespun, and cosmopolitan Benjamin Franklin? He declared that

 

the number of white people in the world is proportionably [sic] very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English make the principal boy of white people on the face of the earth. I could wish their numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, scouring our planet, by clearing America of woods, and so making this side of our globe reflect a brighter light to the eyes of inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the sight of superior beings, darken its people? why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely white and red? But perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my Country, for such kind of partiality is natural to Mankind.[7]

 

Turns out Franklin was tribalist and nativist as well.

The super-group representation of America proclaimed by Obama and Chua is attributable to only a sliver of American history in the late twentieth century. It was after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in Chua’s view, when “America underwent [a] profound transformation: from a multiethnic nation into something even more unusual: a super-group” (27). But is it proper and anthropologically sound to define America by what amounts to around 22 percent of its history since 1776?  Doing so could be a reason why some white Americans have, in Chua’s words, asserted “ownership of the country’s past” with a tribal attitude: “We built this land of opportunity and invited you in, and now we’re being demonized for its imperfections.

Myths idealize and romanticize truth, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. As a scholar, Chua ought to be in the business of ferreting out the truth rather than distorting or glossing over it through mythmaking. She applauds the inclusiveness of America as a super-group without acknowledging the ironic implication that, a fortiori, those who disagree with her are wrong about their definition of America. Of valid conceptions of America that might seem tribal, or at least out of key with her postwar liberal revivalism, she has nothing favorable to say. She therefore opens herself up to criticism that will only compound rather than mitigate the tribalism she seeks to abate.

Chua betrays her own thesis: From a position of supposed authority, she presumes knowledge about the way ordinary people in the United States think about their country. She thereby reveals her own tribalism, to which she seems blind, and unwittingly presents herself as a member of the elite tribe that she so decries. With the wave of a hand, she lumps Americans into two undesirable categories, the haves and have nots, never taking the time to explain whether and how these categories are permeable or inadequately representative of a diverse population with distinct experiences.

Despite her intended message of peaceable inclusivism, Chua might be  misinterpreted as  insisting that newcomers, local communities, and regional cultures give up their customs and traditions and embrace the assimilationist experiment that she portrays  as essential to American identity. She says, for instance, “we need to collectively find a national identity capacious enough to resonate with, and hold together as one people, Americans of all sorts—old and young, immigrant and native born, urban and rural, descendants of slaves as well as descendants of slave owners” (203).  This is a beautiful but quixotic proposal, one that could require groups to abandon positions that are integral to their identity and Weltanschauung.

Chua’s proposal also  raises questions about how much coercion she believes to be justified to stamp out opposition or dissent in the name of absolute inclusion. What reasonable thinker would in good faith disagree that  “what is needed is one-on-one human engagement” (201), or that “[w]hen people from different tribes see one another as human beings who at the end of the day want the same things—kindness, dignity, security for loved ones—hearts can change” (202)? The problem, of course, is translating that compassionate sentiment into official policy through government or institutions. People cannot be forced to love each other.

Anti-tribalism is tribal, i.e., a view embraced by certain elite groups in America without regard to the perspective of many ordinary Americans. Political Tribes suggests, therefore, that Chua is part of the problem: her type of tribalism is acceptable, others are not. A more convincing plea would acknowledge that the breezy cosmopolitanism Chua prefers is not accessible to all, and offer a more nuanced depiction of “Americanness” and its multiplicities.

 

[1] Amy Chua, World On Fire (First Anchor Books, 2014), p. 6.

[2] Albert Jay Nock, The Theory of Education in the United States (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932), 1.

[3] Full text of Barack Obama’s speech available in the Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-obama-2016-convention-speech-transcript-20160727-snap-story.html.

[4] “Read: President Obama’s Speech at the Democratic Convention,” NPR, July 28, 2016. https://www.npr.org/2016/07/28/487722643/read-president-obamas-speech-at-the-democratic-convention.

[5] The Papers of Alexander Hamilton: Vol. XXV July 1800 – April 1802, edited by Harold C. Syrett (Columbia University Press, 1977), 496.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Benjamin Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, Etc. (New York Reprint: W. Abbatt, 1918), 224.

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