Progressives Shoot at Shakespeare

Dana Dusbiber’s statement in The Washington Post deploring the teaching of Shakespeare in high school English courses evoked universal scorn and laughter. Her thesis is simple: Shakespeare is too old, white, male, and European for 21st-century American students, especially those of color.  His language is dense and unfamiliar, enough so that Dusbiber herself can’t always understand it.  He is the result of white people’s tastes.  He’s a routine, not a fresh discovery.

The Common Core English Language Arts standards (quoted by Dusbiber) require a play by Shakespeare in high school, but she treats the rule as a hidebound imposition.  It makes for a boring and alien class experience.  When are bureaucrats going to realize that the student population needs something else?  When will they stop peddling old-time, non-diverse classics to youths who don’t like them—and with good reason?  We need to assign words, images, and ideas closer to their real lives.

Commentators jumped on Dusbiber for anti-intellectualism, low standards, and incompetence. But why attack Dusbiber for voicing standard progressive premises? Her opinions are not the complaints of a narrow-minded and eccentric individual. They are entirely in keeping with multiculturalist notions.  True, she delivers a blunt and inexpert expression of them, but her conclusions and practices follow logically from the race and gender focus of reigning education theory of the progressive kind.  She says nothing that gainsays the following truisms about the English class:

  • Students need “representation”—black students need to see black authors and black characters (humanely portrayed), and it’s best if they are presented by a black teacher.
  • The past is irrelevant or worse—history evolves and mankind improves (if steered in the right social-justice directions); to emphasize the past is to preserve all the injustices and misconceptions of former times.
  • Contemporary literature is better—it’s more diverse and more real.
  •  Classics are authoritarian—they deny teachers and students the freedom to chart their own curriculum and take ownership of their learning.

Dusbiber adopts all of these assumptions.  Her error lay not in her ideas but in her inarticulate version of them.  A more sophisticated rendition would have blocked much of the hostile response, but reached the same conclusions.  We should aim criticism not at her, but at progressive education in general.  Everything she said she heard before in teacher training programs.  Shakespeare can’t survive hack teachers, and he can’t survive progressive principles, either.

One particular response recognized the threat progressivist to the Bard and aimed to dispel it on progressivist grounds.  Written by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, “The Progressive Case for Teaching Shakespeare” appeared in The New Republic. For Bruenig, Shakespeare is defensible even in the non-white urban American classroom for two reasons.

One, his distance from us compels us to reflect upon our own condition.  As we enter the world of Hamlet and Henry V, we must imagine a world of different values and beliefs and mores. This in turn excites in youths a “political imagination,” Bruenig says, that makes us regard our own time more critically.

The second rationale has a political meaning, too, but a concrete one.  Politicians often invoke historical references to bolster their positions.  It is crucial, then, for youths to know these references in order for them to assess their political uses and abuses.

It is hardly necessary to note that if this is the best progressive argument for Shakespeare, he hasn’t a prayer.  One doesn’t need to read a whole Shakespeare play in order to pick up historical allusions in contemporary politics.  A Wikipedia entry will do.  The same goes for encountering the strangeness of the past.  Why struggle through the scenes of King Lear in order to understand the situation of the poor in Renaissance Europe?  (Bruenig chooses the poor as her example.)  You could do the same by choosing more accessible materials such as paintings and videos and museum artifacts.  Nothing Bruenig contends justifies Shakespeare over anything else.

The problem is that progressivism can’t make the argument. Shakespeare endures in the classroom on aesthetic and cultural grounds that progressivism refuses.  It casts aesthetic excellence as a political tool, the imposition of one group’s tastes upon everyone else.  And it marks the culture at whose pinnacle Shakespeare stands (the English literary-historical canon) as an outdated authority.

To say that Shakespeare is central to our cultural inheritance—beloved by audiences in the 19th-century American west, quoted by presidents, source of countless American idioms—is to dispel the multiculturalist breakthrough of the mid-20th century.  If progressivism reigns in secondary and higher education, Shakespeare, Pope, and Wordsworth are doomed.

Brandeis Betrays Students’ Rights

Earlier this spring, a student filed a due process lawsuit against Brandeis, charging that he was disciplined under a procedure different from the one that existed when he arrived on campus. In one respect, the facts of this case are atypical. After a nearly two-year relationship (between two male students) ended, the accuser appears to have reinterpreted the relationship as sexual assault. In another respect, though, this case is quite typical—a highly dubious procedure produced a questionable result.

Brandeis recently filed a motion urging the district court to dismiss the claim. (You can read the college’s filing here.) A key claim by the accused (who filed under a pseudonym) was breach of contract—that Brandeis was obligated to follow the disciplinary procedure that existed when he matriculated to the school. Instead, the college transformed a procedure that originally included a hearing and judgment based on “clear-and-convincing” evidence into the administration’s preferred “preponderance-of-evidence” standard. That standard called for a “single investigator” in which the accused student loses any right to cross-examine his accuser (or other witnesses), or even to hear what accusing witnesses have to say.

Brandeis doesn’t deny what it did, but astonishingly describes substituting one wholly different procedure for another as merely a “tweak” to its rules — part of the college’s “evolving” disciplinary standards and therefore not a breach of contract. How so? Brandeis didn’t wholly substitute one set of procedures for another in all student disciplinary cases, the college maintains, but did so “for only a narrow subset of student misconduct.” Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines tweak: “to make usually small adjustments in or to fine-tune.” It seems to me wholly replacing a procedure is a bit more than a small adjustment, or fine-tuning.

Even if the procedural change was more than a tweak, Brandeis claims it had good reason for acting as it did. Why? The “Dear Colleague” letter “explains that cross-examination and confrontation of the accuser would actually violate Title IX.” But in fact that letter offers no such explanation. In 2011, the Office of Civil Rights did assert—as part of its more general attack on due process rights of the accused—that despite nearly four decades of policy where this issue went unmentioned, it heretofore would “strongly discourage” cross-examination, even in instances where the accuser was the sole witness against the accused.

But strong discouragement is not the same as an actual violation. At most, the Dear Colleague letter maintains that cross-examination “possibly” [emphasis added]—not “actually,” as Brandeis claims—might create a hostile learning environment, allowing an appeal to Title IX. If Brandeis can’t even accurately describe its obligations under the Dear Colleague letter, why should the court trust its description of the contested facts in the case?

Beyond the procedure, Brandeis aggressively maintains that the single investigator’s conclusions—based on unsworn testimony that she did not record, notes of which she did not provide to the accused student—were just. In so doing, the college essentially concedes that its standards for determining what is or is not sexual assault are almost wholly arbitrary.

Brandeis asserts that “the common thread running through all of [the accused] claims is sexual, because [the accused] and [the accuser] had a dating relationship, consent to any and all sexual activity must be assumed.” But this isn’t what the lawsuit maintains. Rather, the lawsuit suggests that the existence of a long-term relationship must be a factor in evaluating the viability of the accuser’s after-the-fact, post-bad-breakup claims.

For instance: one infraction determined by the investigator (a former OCR staffer) was an alleged unwanted advance by the accused (at that point a closeted gay man) toward the accuser (at that point openly gay)—just before the two commenced their long-term relationship. Both sides agree the advance occurred. If the two didn’t have a 21-month relationship that began just after the alleged unwanted advance, perhaps the accuser’s tale might have some credibility. But surely the context matters here; and if the advance was unwanted, why did the accuser, who was open about his sexuality, decide nonetheless to initiate and maintain a long-term relationship with his alleged assaulter?

Similarly, Brandeis defends its investigator’s “balanced” conclusion that the accused student committed sexual misconduct by: (a) sometimes waking up his sleeping boyfriend with kisses; (b) sometimes staring at his long-term boyfriend’s nude body in the communal showers; and (c) sometimes getting “sulky” when the two didn’t have sex. Even if true, by those standards one or both partners of virtually any long-term couple at Brandeis (or anyplace else) could be deemed a rapist by the college. By describing behavior customary to many long-term relationships as sexual assault, Brandeis trivializes actual sexual assault.

One final point: somewhat oddly, Brandeis cites to the DePauw decision to justify its motion to dismiss. It seems to me that Judge Lawrence, in the DePauw case, did exactly what Brandeis wants court not to do here: he meaningfully examined the college’s procedures and evidence, took testimony in open court, and concluded that very little basis existed for the college’s decision to brand Ben King a rapist.

Will we see a similarly engaged court in Massachusetts?

The Strange World of Social Justice Warriors

Culture wars over “social justice” have been wreaking havoc in many communities, including universities and science fiction fandom.

The ordeal of Northwestern University film professor Laura Kipnis, hauled before a campus gender equity tribunal for publishing a critique of academia’s current obsession with sexual misconduct, has brought the backlash against “political correctness” to reliably left-of-center venues such as Vox. But this is only the latest incident in the culture wars over “social justice” that have been wreaking havoc in a wide range of communities—including, but not limited to, universities, the literary world, science fiction fandom and the atheist/skeptic movement.

The progressive crusaders driving these wars have been dubbed “social justice warriors,” or “SJWs,” by their Internet foes. Some activists on the left proudly embrace the label, crowing that it says a lot about the other side that it uses “social justice” as a derisive epithet. But in fact, this version of “social justice” is not about social justice at all. It is a cultish, essentially totalitarian ideology deeply inimical—as liberals such as Jonathan Chait warn in New York Magazine—to the traditional values of the liberal left, and not just because of the movement’s hostility to freedom of “harmful” speech.

At the core of social justice dogma is fixation on identity and “privilege.” Some of this discourse touches on real and clear inequities: for instance, the widespread tendency of police and others to treat African-Americans, especially young and male, as potential lawbreakers. Yet even here, the rhetoric of privilege generates far more heat than light. University of California-Merced sociologist Tanya Bolash-Goza, who accepts the social justice left’s view of pervasive structural racism in America, points out that the term “white privilege” turns what should be the norm for all—not being harassed by cops or eyed suspiciously by shop owners—into a special advantage unfairly enjoyed by whites. (Indeed, in its dictionary meaning, “privilege” refers to rights or benefits possessed by the select, not by the majority.) This language speaks not to black betterment but to white guilt. It also erases the fact that the “privilege” extends to many non-white groups, such as Asians.

Privilege rhetoric offers an absurdly simplistic view of complex social dynamics. A widely cited essay by pro-“social justice” sci-fi writer John Scalzi seeks to explain privilege to geeks by arguing that being a straight white male is akin to playing a videogame on “the lowest difficulty setting.” Does the white son of a poor single mother have it easier than the daughter of a wealthy black couple? As a minor afterthought, Scalzi mentions that “players” in other groups may be better off if they start with more “points” in areas such as wealth. But generally, the “social justice” left strenuously avoids the issue of socioeconomic background, which, despite upward mobility, is surely the most tangible and entrenched form of actual privilege in modern American society. Rather, the focus is on racial, sexual, and cultural identities.

While social justice discourse embraces “intersectionality”—the understanding that different forms of social advantage and disadvantage interact with each other—this virtually never works in favor of the “privileged.” Thus, intersectionality may mean recognizing that disabled battered women suffer from both sexism and “ableism.”

Recognizing that disabled men may be at greater risk for spousal abuse because disability reverses the usual male advantage in strength? Not so much. To acknowledge advantages enjoyed by the “oppressed”—for instance,gender bias favoring female defendants in criminal cases or mothers in custody suits—is pure heresy. The only moral dilemma is which oppressed identity trumps which: race or gender, sexuality or religion.

This hierarchy of identity politics can lead to some bizarre inversions of progressive values. Thus, because Muslims are classified as “marginalized” and “non-privileged” in the West’s power structures, critics of misogyny and homophobia in fundamentalist Islam risk being chastised for “Islamophobic” prejudice. Charlie Hebdo, the staunchly left-wing French magazine murderously attacked in January in retaliation for its Mohammed cartoons, was denounced bya number of leftist critics who felt that the magazine’s satirical barbs at Islam (along with other organized religions) amounted to “punching down” at the powerless. The men with guns who shot twelve Charlie staffers were presumably punching up.

On the other hand, since Jews in Western society today are seen as more privileged than not, social justice discourse sheepishly sidesteps anti-Semitism—surely one of the most pernicious forms of bigotry in Western history. Salon, more or less the Pravda of today’s social justice left, recently ran a piece arguing that the coming reboot of the X-Men franchise should reinvent its character Magneto, a Jewish Auschwitz survivor, as black in order to “get real about race.”

The practical effects of such “social justice” ideology be seen in the communities where it flourishes (mainly on college campuses and online). It is a reverse caste system in which a person’s status and worth depends entirely on their perceived oppression and disadvantage. The nuances of rank can be as rigid as in the most oppressively hierarchical traditional society. A white woman upset by an insulting comment from a white man qualifies for sympathy and support; a white woman distraught at being ripped to shreds by a “woman of color” for an apparent racial faux pas can be ridiculed for “white girl tears.” However, if she turns out to be a rape victim, the mockery probably crosses a line.

On the other hand, a straight white male trashed by an online mob for some vague offenses deemed misogynist and racist can invite more vitriol by revealing that he is a sexual abuse survivor suffering from post-traumatic stress.

A recent controversy in the science fiction world illustrates this toxic atmosphere. A few months ago, many sci-fi writers and fans were shaken by the revelation that Benjanun Sriduangkaew, a young Thai female author, not only doubled as a militant “social justice” blogger but had a third identity as a notorious LiveJournal troll known for egregious harassment, including death and rape threats—often toward nonwhite, female, or transgender victims. Yet Sriduangkaew found supporters who saw the scandal as, in the words of a Daily Dot article, “an example of white privilege attempting to silence writers of color.” The article itself approached the question of whether she deserved forgiveness in nakedly political terms: “Sriduangkaew [is] an excellent, well-liked writer whose multicultural voice is an important addition to the sparse population of non-white writers in the world of speculative publishing. On the other hand, her troll voice has often worked to loudly silence other members of marginalized identities.” Some tried to defend Sriduangkaew by pointing out that most of her targets were white males.

In this climate, it is not surprising that a while male poet would write an agonized letter to a literary blog wondering if he should stop writing: he feels guilty about writing from a white male perspective but also worries that if he writes in the voice of women or minorities, he would be “colonizing” their stories.

Working to correct inequities is a noble goal—which explains the appeal of the “social justice” movement to many fair-minded people. But the movement in its current form is not about that. It elevates an extreme and polarizing version of identity politics in which individuals are little more than the sum of their labels. It encourages wallowing in anger and guilt. It promotes intolerance and the politicization of everything. It must be stopped—not only for the sake of freedom, but for the sake of a kinder, fairer society.

This article was published originally in the New York Observer.

CAMILLE PAGLIA IS UNHAPPY WITH OUR COLLEGES

Reason has released a March, 2015 Nick Gillespie interview with cultural critic Camille Paglia, who as usual has many lively opinions.

Here are a few: journalism today (bad), Hillary (a disaster), the ideal first female president (Dianne Feinstein), what kids learn in high school (don’t bully), college now (summer camp, Club Med), what campus leftists should have been doing in the 80s and 90s (“opposing the entire evolution of the university–that is, toward this administrative bureaucracy that has totally robbed power from the faculty.”)

She thinks students today are “utterly unformed” and colleges are responsible for the lack of intellectual discourse in America:: “I’ve encountered these graduates of Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton; I’ve encountered them in the media, and people in their 30s now, some of them, their minds are like Jell-O. They know nothing! They’ve not been trained in history. They have absolutely no structure to their minds. Their emotions are unfixed. The banality of contemporary cultural criticism, of academe, the absolute collapse of any kind of intellectual discourse in the U.S. is the result of these colleges, which should have been the best, instead having retracted into caretaking. The whole thing is about approved social positions in a kind of misty love of humanity, without any direct knowledge of history or economics or anthropology.”