Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Left-Behind Left

When I read this story in the City Pages, I couldn’t help but think of my own experiences as an undergraduate English/Sociology major at a small midwestern university. You see, I have a lot of qualms with my education, and in many ways I feel cheated by it, but I’ve always been reluctant to write about it. These days there’s a whole lot of bullshit being spread around about colleges being “liberal indoctrination camps” or whatever. I have no interest in playing into that nonsense. Those are cheap attacks from cheap ideologues and no one ought to take them seriously. The problem with humanities departments isn’t that they’re too liberal, it’s that they’re not liberal enough.

Now, understand this: I took dozens of classes as an undergraduate and the lion’s share of them were taught by self-proclaimed left-wingers. It was pretty much taken for granted that some monolith named “Western Civilization” was history’s premier oppressor and that every canonical cultural artifact it has produced bears the taint of its racism, sexism, classism and militarism. For the most part, I had no problems with this orientation. It is a perspective with a fair amount of truth to it and certainly a necessary one to learn. Also–and this is crucial–most of my professors encouraged respectful debate and seemed genuinely interested in fostering discussion and dialogue. What bothered me was not the departments’ philosophical underpinnings–although there is much to these that I do not accept–but the manner in which it was brought to us.

Put plainly, we were given “leftism” as a defeated, dead worldview. Right-wingers like to tell scary stories about the menace of an all-powerful, well-funded, and endlessly seductive “left”, but a few semesters in any cultural studies program should put their cold, grey hearts at ease. Because this left is a relic, a butterfly pinned to corkboard. Underneath all the interminable articles about the pedagogy of the oppressed and the transgressive hermeneutics of so-and-so was one unmistakable message: the world is vile, spiteful, and mean; you, however, can rise above it if you just start having the correct thoughts. The academic left is all about personal virtue. Its main message is one of retreat. Society has failed them, but they still have Toni Morrison and a handful of French theorists, so they give up on what actually matters and busy themselves with their own egos.

This does not strike me as particularly progressive. If anything, it’s depressing and alienating. It is ridiculous to imagine that these programs produce ardent, lifelong leftists. More often, people graduate from them thanking God that they no longer have to put up with another windy treatise, no longer have to write another paper about how the “voice” of some “Other” is being “stifled” somehow. I’m happy to have escaped that business. I’m happy, also, that my liberalism somehow made it through unscathed. In much of academia, they seem to want you to think that being on the left requires pessimism, humorlessness, and defensive self-righteousness. Once I made it out, I rediscovered that this need not be the case. We can be liberal and proud, liberal and hopeful, liberal and engaged in the full breadth of life, not just fixated on the ivory-tower turf we’ve claimed. This is what needs to be infused into the liberal arts departments across the country, I think. A sense of engagement in the world, a love of life in all its variety and complexity, an appreciation of beauty and brilliance–with these the long-disgraced humanities will start being human again. That’s when they’ll start being a threat to all these right-wingers. Because, at the moment, all the bad-faith complaints and knee-jerk raging of the neo-McCarthyites calls to mind nothing so much as a lion preparing to feast on a gnat.