The Duplicitous Game of Critique

Ever since the “Theory Revolution” of the 1970s, my colleagues in the humanities have prided themselves on their vigilant critical temper. Marx’s famous pledge in 1843 was everybody’s motto: “a ruthless criticism of all that exists.”

By 1980, after the wave of Theodor Adorno, Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and other radical analysts of everything assumed, taken for granted, and accepted as normal and true, the last thing you wanted to be accused of was naiveté. Every popular conception had to be deconstructed and “interrogated”: truth, greatness, Great Books, Western Civilization, heterosexuality, masculinity. Each of those terms now had quotation marks around them, either scare quotes or sneer quotes. Any idea of longstanding authority had to be pulled down. Your skeptical critique was taken as a sign of intelligence and professionalism.

The method involved a semantic switch. Instead of asking what a term such as classic meant, which would entail listing its conceptual contents (its “intension”) and the objects to which it applies (its “extension”), you focused on how the term operated in institutional contexts. How, for instance, does the term classic enable someone to include certain things and people and exclude others? How does it maintain certain practices and resist revisions to them?

By describing the power of an idea, the enlightened professor “demystified” it—that is, described it in all its political uses. No more would professors regard their assumptions as neutral. From now on, especially under the tutelage of Foucault (see “Discourse on Language”), the terms of the disciplines of the humanities had to be understood in light of the discipline they enforced.

We know now this was all a pretense. The goal of “ruthless criticism” was not to lead naïve thinkers into enlightened outlooks. It was not to submit insufficiently examined ideas to an analytical microscope. It was to delegitimize conservative ideas and values. Progressive values and ideas remained secure. Only traditional, bourgeois, commonsense, conservative ones were in the dock.

For instance, the academic went after the idea of the literary canon (from Beowulf to James Joyce) with a vengeance, claiming that it was closed to alternative writings and alternative identities. The canon of masterpieces was a compilation of masterworks, the best that had been thought and said, which made it exclusive, not inclusive, intolerant and monocultural, a narrow lineage with too many “Dead White Males.” It had to go.

They went after the notion of universal truth, too. Shakespeare, they told us, didn’t impart universal truths about human nature. There is no human nature. We are all socially-constructed, historically-determined “desiring machines” that occupy a physical body for a period of time. Let’s have no more sentimental talk about great literature and enduring verities.

When it comes to progressive ideas, though, left-wing intellectuals are as trusting and complacent and uncritical as the most tweedy leader of a Robert Browning Society 100 years ago. The notion of diversity is the most promiscuously and thoughtlessly uttered catchword in academia today, and yet you will not hear any academics address its clear exclusionary effects (I wrote about how it functions in job interviews to screen out conservatives here).

The theory of intersectionality, too, has deep cachet in the departments, but I don’t know of any effort to examine how it functions as a Foucauldian tool of discipline (which it certainly does). Ruthless criticism doesn’t allow any sacred cows to go untouched, but we have a whole set of them in liberal enclaves on campus and off—for instance, those individuals who can claim under intersectional theory the possession of three victim-group traits (female, gay, black . . .).

The irony is thick. Progressives declare that their dismantling of old ideas was a liberating and just and overdue project, but the ideas they have installed in their place are a lot more binding and coercive than the ones that prevailed before.

Can anyone who has been on campus for 30 years or more say there is more freedom of opinion now than there was in 1985? Does the Democratic Party admit more diversity of viewpoints today than it did in Hubert Humphrey’s time?

Now we know. When it came to the great movements of multiculturalism, diversity, tolerance, and inclusion, progressives didn’t mean it. Critique-of-thee-but-not-of-me . . . that was the tactic. They are relentlessly suspicious of every belief on the Right, and equally credulous of every belief on the Left. Any conservative who doesn’t get that diversity-tolerance-inclusion is a dishonest power play, not a call for openness and fairness, is a fool.

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