Intellectual burqas

Culture | Will Sept. 11 lead to the liberation of American universities?

Issue: "Daniel of the year 2001," Dec. 22, 2001

The word Taliban means "student." For years, Afghanistan was ruled by its academic class--its scholars, teachers, and obedient students. Education is a wonderful thing, but in its left-wing manifestations, whether in the radical Islamic schools of the Middle East or in the radical secular schools of America and Europe, the academic world shares a common mindset.

Professors and their students, mullahs and their taliban, have the occupational hazard of cultivating a reality-hating idealism, ideological blinders, and grandiose self-righteousness. This academic frame of mind lies behind both the strictures of political correctness on American campuses and the utter control over thought, behavior, and innocent pleasures in Afghanistan.

Even their ideology is similar. Left-wing university professors tend to agree with their Islamic fundamentalist colleagues that America is the "Great Satan," that Muslims are oppressed by American imperialism, that Palestinians are victims of a Zionist plot, and that Western civilization deserves to be overthrown by the morally superior cultures of the Third World.

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A new book by Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (Washington Institute for Near Eastern Study), documents how academic experts on the Middle East have been consistently wrong. "America's academics have failed to predict or explain the major evolutions of Middle Eastern politics and society over the past few decades," he writes. Instead, they "have been taken by surprise by their subjects; time and again, their paradigms have been swept away by events."

Blinded by their post-Marxist ideology, they present the Islamic revival as a liberating force. All problems in the region are blamed on Western imperialism. And Palestinians are romanticized, while Israelis are demonized. At the same time, real problems--such as terrorism, totalitarianism, and the economics of oil, weapons, and drug dealing--have been ignored.

In a review of Mr. Kramer's book in Human Events, Daniel Pipes quotes the noted Middle Eastern specialist Fawaz Gerges, who had attacked what he called "the terrorist industry" for exaggerating "the terrorist threat to American citizens." Mr. Gerges had accused nonacademic terrorist experts of promoting an "irrational fear of terrorism by focusing too much on farfetched horrible scenarios." More far-fetched or horrible than what actually happened on Sept. 11?

But the issues go deeper than this. The ideological straitjacket American intellectuals have wrapped themselves in has kept them from acknowledging any human values. In the current academic climate, scholars critique every moral affirmation as an imposition of power. Every affirmation of the true, the good, or the beautiful is deconstructed, politically interrogated, and made the victim of academic terrorism.

Now, after Sept. 11, when moral values seem clear and civilization seems precious, some academics are starting to speak out against the triviality, irrelevance, and inhumane cold-heartedness of much academic discourse.

In an angst-ridden article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Chicago English professor Lisa Ruddick confesses that she never believed all that stuff she had to say, and teach, and write: "After I finished my first book 11 years ago and was suddenly freed by tenure from the necessity of adhering to the critical norms of the moment, I became, disappointingly, paralyzed. I was in great conflict about continuing to observe certain intellectual rules that were a part of the dominant thinking--rules that I thought were limiting but that I couldn't challenge without courting disgrace."

After researching an article in which she says that burying the dead is a universal practice, she was so afraid of being accused of being right-wing-for implying that there is some universal humanity with some universal values-that she could not bring herself to submit the article for publication.

Believing that people from all cultures have things in common is a rather modest creed. It is not as if she had to hide something really controversial, such as believing in Christianity. And yet she was so timid, so eager to be liked, that she adhered to "the critical norms of the moment," even though she did not believe in them, and distorted her own research at the fear of "courting disgrace."

In light of the event s of Sept. 11, though, Ms. Ruddick is casting off her intellectual burqa, which was just as constricting as the full-body covering that the Taliban forced Afghan women to wear.

The dirty secret of higher education is that large numbers of professors do not really believe in the ideas they are teaching or promoting in their research. They are just going along to be intellectually respectable and to be accepted by their peers in the faculty lounge. Such failure of nerve, such intellectual dishonesty, such academic cowardice turns the noble educational enterprise into a farce and a charade.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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