Author Naomi Schaefer Riley was an ornament to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm blog where she provided a keen dissenting voice pointing out the follies of modern academia. Riley, the author of the brilliant The Faculty Lounges … And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For, is a critic of the liberal orthodoxies of the American campus. She has earned the enmity of the sector’s establishment by pointing out the con games played by universities that have profited from the creation of sham disciplines and the way college faculties have insulated themselves by focusing largely on the publication of arcane academic papers filled with jargon that makes no sense to anyone outside of their narrow fields.
Having such a voice of reason at a publication like the Chronicle–which caters to the residents of those faculty lounges about which Riley has written–was an important and perhaps daring decision on the part of its editors. But apparently there is a limit to their willingness to allow anyone to speak the truth about the academic world. After Riley wrote a post pointing out the absurdity at the heart of a recent Chronicle feature that highlighted the “young guns” at Black Studies departments around the nation, the publication says “thousands” of its readers protested. Rather than stand by their writer, the Chronicle caved to criticism in the most abject manner possible. In a craven note to its readers, editor Liz McMillen claimed Riley’s post “did not meet the Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles” and fired her. In shamefully throwing Riley under the bus, the Chronicle has not only done her an injustice. It has undermined, perhaps fatally, its credibility as a journal of thought as well as making it clear it will no longer countenance any dissent from academia’s wisdom on race and gender studies.
McMillen’s note is doubly offensive because its characterization of Riley’s post is incorrect, and because she also chose to grovel to the mob by apologizing for a previous editor’s note in which she invited readers to debate the author’s opinion. Though she now says her previous note was wrong to “elevate Riley’s post to the level of informed opinion,” the only thing that is clear from reading her obsequious apology is that in allowing Riley’s critics to dictate editorial policy, she has debased the Chronicle and herself to a point where neither can be taken seriously.
In examining this controversy, it must be asserted from the outset that nothing Riley wrote was offensive or lacking in civility, as McMillen charged. Riley’s offense was not one of tone or fact but rather in her willingness to say Black Studies is an academic discipline rooted in and consumed by the politics of victimization with little scholarly value.
Riley pointed out something that was obvious to any objective reader of the Chronicle’s paean to those coming in this field: their dissertation topics are trivial and motivated solely by what she aptly calls “left-wing victimization claptrap” in which racism is the answer to every conceivable question.
The dissertations she mentioned speak volumes about the low level of discourse that passes for academic achievement in this field. That topics such as black midwives being left out of natural birth literature, the notion that the promotion of single family homes is racist and the branding of black conservatives as opponents of civil rights are the work of the best and brightest in black studies tell us all we need to know about why Riley is right about the need to eliminate this form of academic fraud.
In saying this, Riley was blunt but transgressed no rules of journalism other than the need not to offend powerful constituencies. But for those devoted to the promotion of this sector of academia, for Riley to have pointed out that the emperor has no clothes is an unforgivable offense that must be punished by branding her as a racist who must be banished from the pages of the magazine. The only “standard” that Riley did not live up to in this post was the obligation to say what many on the left want to hear. Contrary to McMillen, the betrayal here was not on the part of the Chronicle for having published Riley, but in firing her in order to appease an unreasoning pack of academic jackals howling for the blood of anyone with the temerity to point out their shortcomings.
It is painful to watch a respected publication like the Chronicle descend to this level of groupthink. However, this episode does illustrate how out of touch with reality its editors and many of its readers are. The defenestration of Naomi Schaefer Riley only makes plain the depths to which those determined to silence dissent against academic orthodoxy will sink.
Silencing Dissent About Black Studies
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"Drummed in your dear little ear."
America is lurching toward a civic crisis. The symptoms are most evident in America’s youth who, in their rash intemperance, are apt to say aloud what their elders are clever enough to imply. Subtly or overtly, the message is the same: Violence is coming.
The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell provides only the latest evidence that the next generation is eagerly discarding the standards of civil decency that have kept us from lunging at each other’s throats. She reports on a a survey of undergraduate college students at four-year colleges, conducted by University of California, Los Angeles professor and Brookings Institution Fellow John Villasenor and funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, that offers no reason for optimism.
The survey found that a plurality of students, 44 percent, believe the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech,” whatever that is. It revealed that a majority—51 percent—believe it is acceptable to shout down and drown out “a very controversial speaker” who is “known for making offensive and hurtful statements.” The definitions of controversial, hurtful, and offensive are subjective. Understanding that, however, is indicative of a bygone era when one utilized self-awareness to prevent even the most censorious Americans from overreaching. Finally, and most disturbing, the survey revealed that nearly one-fifth of college students believe it is acceptable to engage in violence to silence a speaker with whom they disagreed.
These sentiments are not novel. A 2015 survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that 71 percent of freshmen believed that colleges should “prohibit racist/sexist speech” and 43 percent of incoming freshmen agreed colleges should “have the right to ban extreme speakers.” Those ideas trickle down. A 2011 poll of faculty conducted by that institution revealed that nearly 70 percent of female college staff and almost half of their male counterparts thought universities should “prohibit” speech deemed racist or sexist.
“Here’s the problem with suggesting that upsetting speech warrants ‘safe spaces,’ or otherwise conflating mere words with physical assault: If speech is violence, then violence becomes a justifiable response to speech,” Rampell writes. Indeed, this observation has been proposed by those who have watched the storm clouds on the horizon for years now (cough). Rampell should, however, not limit her critique to colleges. These authoritarian ideas didn’t dawn on these teenagers like an epiphany ex nihilo. They were imparted.
In the modern age, the intellectual foundations needed to transform even murderous violence as an understandable, if not entirely acceptable, response to provocation were laid years ago by a frustrated class of activists trapped in ivy-covered cages on campuses. It was an impulse that began to seep out into the national consciousness when the editors and cartoonists of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were slaughtered by the Islamist terrorists they deliberately offended. We were treated to a series of hand-wringing treatise from earnest liberals lamenting the effects of a society that “perversely” “valorizes free speech for its own sake.”
Even former Secretary of State John Kerry gave credence to this ideal. Following the bloody November 2015 attack on various locations in Paris, Kerry called the violence senseless—unlike the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. The Charlie Hebdo murderers, he said, had “a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, ‘Okay, they’re really angry because of this and that.’” That same logic can been seen today in the cowardice of adult men and women who scold their young charges for inviting the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter, Condoleezza Rice, Christina Hoff Sommers, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Charles Murray, or any number of pop culture figures, intellectuals, and conservative authors onto campus. Don’t they know they’re just asking for it?
“When someone calls a black person the ‘n’ word out of hatred, he or she is not expressing a new idea or outlining a valuable thought,” read a 2012 editorial in the Harvard Crimson. “They are committing an act of violence.” These sentiments were menacingly echoed by the editors of Wellesley College’s student-run newspaper in 2017. “[I]f people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted,” they wrote, cryptically advocating “appropriate measures” be brought to bear. These and many other misguided students who have used their right to free speech to advocate its repression are merely observing their elders.
In an April 2017 op-ed for the New York Times, New York University vice provost Ulrich Baer put a thin whitewash over rank anti-intellectualism when he claimed that some speech should be suppressed due to the asymmetry between the speaker and offended student. Appropriating the Holocaust to make his claims, he noted that the unduly derided “snowflakes” who display more sensitivity toward their peers’ discomfort than free speech advocates. Pure free expression, he noted “conflicts with the community’s obligation to assure all of its members equal access to public speech.” For some reason, Baer has convinced himself the right of “minorities to participate in public discourse” is under attack. Given that delusional construct, aggression isn’t just warranted but necessary. Denying offensive speakers a “platform,” e.g., preventing invited speakers form honoring their invitation, is a moral imperative.
On Inauguration Day, as agitators set fires and destroyed storefronts in the name of opposing Donald Trump, one of the alt-right’s most vile agitators—the white supremacist organizer Richard Spencer—was hit in the face. The nation was treated to a fatuous display of special pleading typified by media outlets exploring the virtues of this attack as if assault amounted to a weighty philosophical conundrum. “What are the ethics of punching Nazis?” The Guardian asked. “Is it O.K. to punch a Nazi?” the Times pondered. Nine months later, with white supremacists emboldened by the tense climate and a president conspicuously cautious about offending them, Nazis are still appearing in public and getting punched in the face. Why wouldn’t they be when the authors of this violence are getting pats on the head from their elders?
Wearing a Nazi armband, wrote City University of New York Professor Angus Johnston, is “not just a speech act. It’s a test.” Not a test of civic norms, but of the ability of the onlooker to suppress the subconscious checks on the impulse to lash out violently. “It’s street harassment,” he wrote. He rattled off a variety of other situations in which he thought it was okay to perform an act of preemptive violence, made a rough moral equivalency, and implied that anyone who felt differently is a closeted Nazi sympathizer. Modern academic ethics perfectly crystallized.
This litany focuses on the left because leftists offer more material to parse. Cosseted, well-compensated soft revolutionaries are busy penning hagiography to thugs who commit acts of terror in the name of “anti-fascism.” Respectable left-wing journals like the Nation, Mother Jones, and the New Republic have found themselves in the rank agitation business. Right-wing violence is not imaginary, but the legitimization of it in respectable circles—including, arguably, in the White House—is newer. For example: “Several high-profile rallies transformed into brawls between black-clad Antifa and conservatives who sometimes claimed membership in new anti-Antifa organizations, such as the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, a wing of the Proud Boys, itself a group founded by Rebel commentator Gavin McInnes,” the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reported. We’re not talking about National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the professorate at Hillsdale College.
It is tempting to blame young people, who neither understand nor treasure the enlightened values for which generations of Americans have fought and died. But these young men and women are mimicking illiberalism by example. You have to be carefully taught.
Podcast: Exit, stage left.
In John Podhoretz’s absence, Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman take the helm in the first of the week’s podcasts devoted almost entirely the liberal anxiety at the Emmy Awards. Why are so many Americans tuning out of awards shows, movies, music, and sports programming? Could the answer be divorced from displays of liberal politics? The hosts also discuss the self-deluded antipathy toward “normalizing” a president, which is now inexplicably being directed toward his former press secretary.
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100 years of confusion.
Ben Steverman of Bloomberg News has an article up entitled, “Why American Workers Pay Twice as Much in Taxes as Wealthy Investors.” In it, he shows how an emergency room doctor with an income of $300,000 and an investor with the same income from capital gains and dividends would have tax rates respectively of 34 percent and 14 percent.
This is either sheer demagogy or Mr. Steverman thinks the corporate income tax is paid by the tooth fairy.
In fact, it is paid by some combination of higher prices for consumers, lower wages for workers, and lower dividends and stock prices for stockholders. The exact distribution between the three depends on the particular economic circumstances for each industry.
But let’s assume our investor is wholly invested in Amalgamated Widget and Congress decides to eliminate the corporate income tax (as it should, but won’t). The tax is currently at 35 percent, the highest rate in the world. Amalgamated Widget’s after-tax profit would instantly rise by 35 percent. This would translate almost instantly into both higher dividends and a greatly improved stock price.
Why are dividends taxed at a lower rate than wage income? Because they are paid out of after-tax profits. In other words, a tax of 35 percent has already been levied on that money. Bond interest, on the other hand, is considered a business expense, so bond interest is paid out of pretax income. That’s why interest on bonds is taxed at the full rate. Eliminate the corporate income tax and dividends would properly be taxed at the full rate as ordinary income as well.
Why are capital gains taxed at a lower rate than wage income? Again, stock prices (a function of perceived future profits) would be much higher if not for the corporate income tax, so taxing capital gains on stock at the full rate would, again, be double taxation. More, capital gains are not indexed for inflation (they certainly should be). So if our theoretical investor had bought 1000 shares of Amalgamated Widget in 1967 for $100,000 and sold them today for $1,000,000, he’d owe a capital gains tax on the “profit” of $900,000. But there’s been a cumulative inflation since 1967 of 635.1 percent. So his real profit is only $264,913.
The Supreme Court had struck down a personal income tax on the wealthy in 1895. In 1909, President William Howard Taft, a very gifted lawyer, devised the corporate income tax as a clever means of taxing the income of the rich anyway, as corporate stock at that time was almost all owned by the rich. But when the 16th Amendment was passed in 1913, and a personal income tax quickly levied, no attempt to merge the two income taxes was made.
The result has been 1) a century of ever-increasing tax complexity as tax lawyers and accountants played the two taxes off against each other to avoid taxation. And 2) a century of liberals screaming that the rich are not paying their fair share when that has often not been the case, as in the examples given by Ben Steverman.
Better things to do.
Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reappeared last night, of all places, on stage at the annual Emmy Awards. All smiles at this gathering of television celebrities, the former chief spokesperson for Donald Trump performed a variety of self-deprecating antics and mocked his own preposterous appearances before the lectern in the White House briefing room. In essence, he turned in a good-natured homage to his caricature as portrayed by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live. Those who don’t share Spicer’s politics were not amused.
The Washington Post rounded up a herd of shaken liberal influencers who were horrified to see the Emmy Awards “normalize” a former White House press secretary. McCarthy herself may not have appreciated the reverence. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, she shared her anxiety over Spicer’s efforts to reclaim this satire with absurd self-seriousness. “No,” she described her thoughts hearing Spicer mockingly threaten to push his podium toward adversarial reporters in the White House briefing room. “That’s not your joke to make.”
This outrage is, of course, selective. No one evinced much agitation when former Press Secretary Josh Earnest became a political analyst despite advancing the myth that Barack Obama’s was “the most transparent” White House in history. None of Jay Carney’s three Hilary Rosens objected when he joined Amazon.com Inc. Robert Gibbs famously admitted that Obama asked him to mislead the press about the nature of the drone program. Woe unto McDonalds Inc. for normalizing that behavior, right?
Fortunately for the apoplectic celebrities who suffered through the briefest of humanizing interludes featuring Spicer, they had a comforting rationalization to which they could appeal. As the Post noted, some traumatized celebrities were relieved to learn Spicer’s self-effacing appearance on the program might also have been a subtly subversive assault on President Trump’s credibility. Unfortunately for the viewing audience, the rest of the program was much less subtle.
The actress Lily Tomlin called Trump “a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” The program’s host, Stephen Colbert, jabbed at Trump’s legitimacy by noting that, unlike the United States, the Emmy Awards honor the popular vote (they don’t). “At long last, Mr. President, here is your Emmy,” said Alec Baldwin while accepting an award for his portrayal of the president on Saturday Night Live—a line the New York Times described as “one of the night’s best zingers.” The most coveted award of the evening went to the streaming service Hulu for their adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has become “a symbol of anti-Trump resistance.” Indeed, with only 5 percent of respondents to a Katz Media Group survey having ever watched the show, more Americans are likely familiar with the Handmaid-inspired performance art than the show itself.
If this sounds to you less like an award show and more like a repellent therapy session for frazzled liberals, you’re in voluminous company. Though adjustments may change the preliminary verdict, this year’s Emmys are set to underperform even last year’s all-time low ratings. Maybe the politics on display were irrelevant; maybe the rise of streaming services has made traditional broadcast television a dying product. Maybe. But the Emmys misfortunes are of a familiar sort. This tune out is starting to feel like a trend.
In August, at just 5.4 million viewers, MTV’s Music Video Awards turned in their lowest ratings of all time. Occurring just days after a white-supremacist terrorist attack on peaceful demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, that event was explicitly political. But it was hard to avoid the impression it would have been political even absent events in Charlottesville.
Awardees delivered homilies praising NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for refusing to stand for the American national anthem and the network played a song titled “f*** Donald Trump” into breaks. For the first time, MTV presented an award for “Best Fight Against the System.” Host Katy Perry, a prominent member of Hillary Clinton’s squad of celebrity surrogates, displayed blinding originality when she joked about appearing in “Handmaid’s Tale” regalia and added that the VMAs was “one election where the popular vote actually matters.”
For months, liberal media outlets have contorted themselves into pretzels to support the claim that the sports network ESPN is not liberal, and conservatives who perceive it to be are addlebrained conspiracy theorists. Nevertheless, ESPN’s former personalities and even its regular viewers—according to a study commissioned by the network—don’t agree. Meanwhile, the network is laying off employees in droves, advertisers are panicking, and its ratings are cratering—the second quarter of 2017 was its least-watched Q2 in four years. Last week, ESPN John Skipper was compelled to admit that the network’s politicization is not a figment of conservative imaginations. “ESPN is not a political organization,” he wrote in a letter to his employees. “ESPN is about sports.” He continued, “we are a journalistic organization and that we should not do anything that undermines that position.”
Even Hollywood is feeling the crunch. The summer of 2017 was the worst performing summer for domestic box office releases in years. “Without a film debuting widely over the Labor Day weekend, Box-office Media predicts the film industry will end the summer of 2017 with sales down by up to 15 percent,” Bloomberg reported. Contrary to some recent revisionism, the films that were released this summer were well-regarded and scored well among reviewers. It’s possible this collapse is unrelated to an epidemic of performing artists lecturing America on its lack of a “moral foundation,” the “cancer” afflicting its politics, and the deteriorating race relations. But what if it’s not?
Movies, cable and broadcast television, music; this tune out isn’t entirely about cord cutting. This is something broader. Any attempt to divorce politics from the public’s waning interest in entertainment media cannot compel without addressing the ubiquity of liberal political messaging permeating the products artists produce. Of course, no one can or should compel an artist to sacrifice their values for commercial viability. Nor, however, can you force consumers to endure a scolding they’d rather avoid.
A failure to persuade.
A new academic year has begun and, with it, we can expect new attempts to demonize Israel on our college campuses. As ever, the immoderation of those who support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement should help. The most recent visible move by prominent BDSers has been to try to align their colleagues—in however hedged a manner—with the politically toxic Antifa movement.
So yes, we are not dealing here with strategic masterminds. But, in academia, such people have an advantage, nonetheless. They are “scholar-activists,” distant cousins of the 1960s New Left, who view campuses, as their forebearers did, as grounds from which to assail the powers that be. That is to say, they are there primarily, not incidentally, to engage in political activism. They have an influence far out of proportion to their numbers because most academics are at colleges and universities to teach and engage in research. They don’t, as people say in the movies, want no trouble. So they are inclined to leave politics to the people who care about it, so long as they are allowed to do their work in peace.
It is in part for this reason that organizations like Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and the newer Academic Engagement Network exist (full disclosure: I have worked with both organizations). On the one hand, they enable scholars drawn reluctantly into a fight against BDS to learn from and support each other’s efforts. On the other hand, they try to spread the news that BDS is not only unjust to Israel—a fact that may worry those with no dog in the fight only a little—but also damaging to the academic enterprise, for which BDS seeks to substitute propagandizing.
At the beginning of the academic year, it is worth pausing to notice how many professors have been willing to put their reputations on the line to turn back BDS efforts and how often they have been successful. These include figures like Cary Nelson, Russell Berman, Rachel Harris, Sharon Musher, and Jeffrey Herf, to name just a few. These academicians have well-deserved reputations for waging long and successful campaigns for the integrity of their disciplines in the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association. But they also include physicist Azriel Genacka and biochemist Fred Naider, who, along with many of their colleagues at the City University of New York, stood up and opposed a pro-BDS resolution passed by a graduate student union there, and supported by some CUNY faculty.
Perhaps most impressively, they include scholars like the anthropologist Gila Silverman, who, despite working in a field that includes many BDS supporters and without the protection of tenure, was willing to fight publicly against a BDS resolution that very narrowly failed to win the support of the American Anthropological Association. Credit is due to the Academic Engagement Network for pulling together, as part of a new guide for faculty, these and other examples of faculty efforts to counter BDS.
Most of the participants in these efforts are left-liberals; in a profession in which conservatives have neither numbers nor much influence, that can hardly be surprising. But BDS has inadvertently brought together people on the left and right who have in common, at the very least, an interest in the health and integrity of their universities and professional associations.
The fight against BDS on our campuses is part of a broader fight to preserve our colleges and universities as homes of reason, in which following arguments where they lead is the aim, not standing, as our moralists are fond of saying, on the right side of history. The antidote to academic BDS in the long run, as its most successful opponents grasp, is to foster an intellectual climate in which all participants in a controversy are expected to be rigorous, and to allow their views and lives to be shaped by good arguments. Even in the best of circumstances, such a climate is present only intermittently at our colleges and universities. But it is also the only climate in which serious academic work can be pursued.
For that reason, even those who prefer to sit on the sidelines when it comes to political controversy might be engaged in efforts to better establish and maintain that air of studiousness. It also happens to be a climate in which BSD cannot breathe.