For anyone interested in performing a reality check on life in academia these days, we recommend James W. Tuttleton’s essay on Gerald Graff’s new book, Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education.

Mr. Tuttleton’s piece begins on page 28. Readers familiar with Professor Graff’s recent lobbying on behalf of academic trendiness will not be surprised to discover that he has once again taken up his pen to complain that conservative critics of academia have got it all wrong, that they have simplified, exaggerated, distorted, and otherwise misrepresented the truth about intellectual life in the university.

But have conservative critics exaggerated the ills besetting the academy? “Gibberish” is a strong word. Yet over the years we have had occasion to cite many, many examples of politicized academic gibberish whose folly it would be difficult to exaggerate. Most of these specimens have come from the field of literary studies. It is important to understand, however, that the intellectual barbarism now rampant in the university is by no means confined to departments of English and comparative literature. Other fields —history, sociology, art history, etc.—are also besieged. An egregious but not, alas, atypical example from what has come to be called “cultural studies” arrived in our offices recently in the form of a new book about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the notorious couple who were convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets in the early 1950s and then, in the face of great public outcry, were duly executed for treason.

The book, by one Virginia Carmichael, is called Framing History: The Rosenberg Story and the Cold War. It is part of a series on American culture published by the University of Minnesota Press. In a fulsome testimonial that appears on the book jacket, George Lipsitz, one of the series’ editors, assures prospective readers that “Carmichael’s use of historial sources and arguments is simply superb; indeed, it provides one of the most fully realized explanations for cold war anticommunism that I have encountered.” Considered as an instrument of rhetorical evasion, the phrase “fully realized explanation” is splendid, for it relieves Mr. Lipsitz of the necessity of acknowledging the best explanation for Cold War anti-Communism— namely the brute historical fact of Communism itself. That is, anti-Communism flourished in the 1950s in response to the very real threat of Communist tyranny.

We know it sounds simple. And you can be sure that Miss Carmichael’s “superb” study steers clear of any such explanation. Her book may be a pathetic congeries of fashionable lit-crit clichés; it may in fact be a tissue of stupidities and untruths; but no one can complain that it favors simple explanations. Consider, for example, Chapter 6, “Closure,” which begins with a section entitled “Anal Logic and Masculist Society.” Here’s the opening paragraph:

The emasculation figured and dramatized in Public Burning [Robert Coover’s novel about the Rosenberg case] is not men’s castration by women, even though gynophobia and misogyny pervasively characterize its masculist world; it is rather the degrading anal aggression of a violent penetration and occupation by the hegemonic masculine, getting fucked by masculist history and the masculist capitalist state. The threat and practice of this kind of political violence produce a nongendered emasculation that manifests itself as a kind of individual impotence before such invasive power; men, women, and childrern are all equally vulnerable, albeit within a hierarchy structured by class, race, and gender. As Uncle Sam says, “There ain’t nothin’ to fear but fear itself and a dry hole.”

Do we exaggerate?

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 7, on page 3
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