I’ve often wondered about the strangely verbose and self-important irrelevance of contemporary universities. Think about it. In 1968 the universities were at the center of political and social ferment. Students were in the streets. Professors such as C. Wright Mills, Norman O. Brown, and Herbert Marcuse were articulate and influential voices in the public square. The New Left and the universities seemed ready to unite into a potent force.
Yet it did not come to pass. To be sure, our universities remain ideologically committed. Recent studies confirm what everyone already knowsprofessors are overwhelmingly men and women of the Left, especially when it comes to disciplines in that have to do with the study of culture. But this ideological homogeneity is now hopelessly irrelevant to contemporary politics. Professors lecture and write in an idiom that is, shall we say, obscure. When marginality gets down and dirty with the hyper-alterity of a trans-gendered discourse that (re)figures the identity of the hegemonic Other, it turns out that nobody is listening. Add institutionally imposed multi-culturalism, which is goofy when its not morally offensive, and you have the perfect recipe for irrelevance.
How did it happen? I used to have my own explanations, but recently I met with a friend at Starbucks. What she had to say shocked me. As she carefully laid out the story of corruption, bribery, and intrigue, I learned that the take-over of the universities by postmodern discourse was a Right Wing Conspiracy!
My friend won’t let me reveal her name, but I can say that she knows her way around the conservative power brokers in Washington. She wouldn’t let me tape our conversation. She won’t even let me take notes. So I’ll have to do my best to reconstruct her account . . .
It all started in the Nixon Whitehouse. The Watergate scandal was reaching it climax. Everybody in the administration felt that the end was near. Most were in survival mode. But a small coterie was more forward looking. In the early summer of 1974, H. R. Haldeman organized a Friday night group of young, iron-willed conservatives. They met over drinks at the Willard Hotel. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were regulars. They talked through their predicament. They all agreed that the tide was going out. It was the damned Liberal Establishment. They controlled the media. They controlled the Foundations. They controlled the universities. Cheney in particular was very pessimistic. “We’ll never recover,” he often moaned, “The Idea Crowd is against us.”
One night Henry Kissinger stopped by for a drink. He heard the diagnosis, and he agreed that the future was not bright. But on one point he rejected the prevailing gloomy mood. “Gentlemen,” he said is his coy way, “do not overestimate the professors. They are very cheaply bought.” Dumbfounded, Rumsfeld and Cheney asked. “You mean that we could pay them to become conservatives?” Kissinger chuckled, and then observed, “Enemies can rarely be made friends, but they can often be made ineffective. Bread and circuses. Bread and circuses. It’s the tried and true way.” After those words, Kissinger downed his scotch and soda and left the group scratching their heads.
That very Saturday, Rumsfeld went jogging with some college buddies from Princeton. One was an English professor at Georgetown. He talked about a new book by a French academic. Rumsfeld remembers the moment well. “What in the hell are you talking about?” he asked with a tone of aggressive dismissal. “Look,” his friend said, “this guy Derrida may catch on.” Suddenly Rumsfeld saw it all clearly. This Derrida fellow made no sense at all. What if he DID catch on? All the Leftist professors would become incomprehensible.
After showering, Rumsfeld called Cheney. They met with Haldeman, who immediately grasped the genius of the plan. Haldeman set up a meeting with Richard Scaife to secure funds. They swung into action. Their agents approached Steven Muller, the newly appointed President of Johns Hopkins, and with discrete contributions ensured that the English and French department took the “right” course of development. $5,000 here and there secured further translations of Derrida’s work. An outright bribe of the chairman of the English Department at Yale cleared the way for the dominance of J. Hillis Miller and Paul de Man. The stage was set.
Over the course of the next decade, the cabal of conservative conspirators continued to advance their plans. In the late 1980s, after using leverage to ensure the appointment of Stanley Fish at Duke, large amounts of money convinced the President of Duke to hire an entire team of postmodern deconstructionists away from Johns Hopkins. It took less cash to convince the careerists at Emory to buy the Hopkins French Department. Elite schools all over the county quivered with anxiety. Nobody wanted to miss the wave of academic fashion.
Pretty soon the conspirators didn’t need to do anything other than pay hush money to the Old Guard liberals. It was important that as few people as possible in academia speak out against the high and mighty theorizing of the postmodern gurus. Measures were taken to keep David Reisman silent. Secret donations were made to the New Republic so that Leon Weiseltier would wink at the growing literary irrelevance of contemporary study of literature. Not to leave anything to chance, they found a truculent Straussian with a record of opposition to the New Left to write a diatribe against postmodern academic culture. Alan Bloom so obviously a “bad guy” that all the “good guys” felt as though they had to defend postmodernism - or at least not give the appearance of agreeing with a retrograde reactionary like Bloom.
The conspirators were so successful at suppressing establishment liberal criticism that, as my friend reported, her contacts were disappointed when Richard Rorty went after the irrelevant academic Left in Achieving Our Country (1998). Why couldn’t he just keep up the impression that he was a pomo, multicultural fellow traveler? Nearly all the other liberals in academia did. But at least it came too late. That was even truer for Todd Gitlin and his pointed criticisms of postmodern political navel gazing in The Intellectuals and the Flag (2006). Now the pomo crowd is the new Old Guard.
“It all became too much for me to bear last week,” she said. “I was at a dinner at the Union League Club in New York. Rumsfeld and Cheney were there. It was a secret event to celebrate their success in discrediting the universities. Hilton Kramer gave the toast. I’ll never forget what he said: “Tonight we celebrate the stupidity of the professoriate. We’ve succeeded beyond our wildest imagination. Ignorant of the great books, overburdened with theoretical self-importance, professors these days can’t think their ways out of Target shopping bags. And, dear friends, it’s so easy to hit them with that bull’s eye draped over their heads.’”
As her account of the conspiracy drew to a close, my friend started to cry. “I just can’t believe that conservatives deliberately destroyed the intellectual integrity and moral authority of our universities.” I mumbled half-hearted words of comfort, and I tried to convince her that the whole account sounded somewhat unlikely. She wouldn’t hear me, and she left disconsolate. I sat sipping the last bit of my coffee, wondering, could it really be true?